I had a date a year ago and the guy asked me what my favorite movie was. A simple question, but I stammered. His brow furrowed. “Didn’t your profile say you love movie quotes?”
I didn’t want to reveal the truth – at least not anytime soon – so I hid behind the Criterion Collection (“La Strada”, “Rebecca” etc.). Then a scene flashed in my head – a hint of music, a huge hat: “You can blow about some things, Rose, but not about the Titanic!”
A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets; My secret is that I love Titanic. This has been true since I was 10 years old crying uncontrollably on my mother’s lap in a darkened theater. Like the on-screen kids saying goodbye to the doomed steamer, I marveled at the magnitude of what passed before my eyes: a full history lesson and a devastating romance between a first-rate passenger named Rose (Kate Winslet) and a dreamer below deck called Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Until then, my cultural diet consisted of Rodgers and Hammerstein singalongs and the Disney canon. “Titanic” – delighted, tragic, real – was an awakening. In just over three hours, the film colored all my ideas about adult life: love, loss, female struggle, the unbreakable bond of a string quartet.
For my child, “Titanic” was incredibly big: it felt like the film encompassed the entire mysterious realm of human life. It was clearly the most powerful experience I’ve ever had with a work of art – but I was 10 years old. I couldn’t fully understand this feeling of transcendence, so I kept looking at it. I saw the film three times when it was released in 1997. The following year when it came out on VHS – a fat brick of a box set neatly split into two happy and sad acts – I routinely popped up in the fore-iceberg with duct tape to enjoy with my after-school snack. I began to focus on improbable features of the film and enjoyed the banal dialogue of its supporting characters: the clueless gray beards (“Freud? Who is he? Is he a passenger?”); the poetry of the bridge (“Take them to sea, Mr. Murdoch. Let’s stretch their legs”); the snobbery of Rose’s mother (“Depending on the class, will the lifeboats be seated? I hope they aren’t too full”).
As I matured, I stopped looking around regularly, but the movie kept playing in my head. I was a melancholy indoor girl myself, and Rose perfectly expressed my teenage boredom: “Same close people, same pointless chatter.” Even in the face of more complex ideas and challenges – like the difficulties of gender politics or the problems of class – I supported me to their casual wisdom and brilliant sentimentality. The movie’s unsubtle gender commentary was starting to feel revolutionary. (“Of course it’s unfair,” says the cool matriarch as she pulls the strings on her daughter’s corset. “We’re women.”) In the late 1990s, everyone I knew adored the Titanic, but I felt it in my heart My own love affair was special.
It was clearly the most powerful experience I’ve ever had with a work of art – but I was 10 years old.
However, late-night jokes and two decades’ worth of revisionist hot takes have shrouded my feelings of affection in deep shame. (Just last month, “The Iceberg That Sank Titanic” appeared on Saturday Night Live complaining, “Why are people still talking about it?”) The older I got, the more my continued admiration felt like some sort of typo in my development, a box I accidentally checked when applying for adulthood. I told myself it was just a guilty pleasure. How could it be anything else? To say that “Titanic” is my favorite movie would be like saying that my favorite picture is the “Mona Lisa”: it suggests a lack of discernment.
But for me the breadth of the film is just right. What snarky critics don’t appreciate is that the movie is a meme because it’s a masterpiece. The film has become a cultural shortcut, a way of talking about ideas bigger than ourselves – mythical subjects like hubris, love, and tragedy – while also making a joke. (Has any line captured our collective quarantine mood more than that old chestnut “It’s been 84 years …”?) It also won 11 Oscars.
Last January, for the first time in ten years, I decided to watch the film from start to finish. When I was young – 1 year in my tape – I was blinded by the spectacle of the film. And yes, watching one more time, I fell for it all the old ways: Jack’s good looks, Rose’s Edwardian hiking suit, the allure of a real party. But as the camera panned over the sleeping elder Rose, I sobbed and saw the images of her life after the Titanic – riding on the beach, climbing a flying machine in Amelia Earheart cosplay, posing in a glamor shot on set.
After a year of great loss, the pathos of this moment struck me differently. Don’t worry about her heart – her life went on. She survived a disaster and led a life so full that the experience became just a memory. It was the message in a bottle that I needed, one of many the Titanic has sent me over the years. I imagine that I will receive this news forever – even as an old lady, warm in her bed.
Jessie Heyman is the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue.com.