The biggest argument in recent Slate history started innocuously, with someone posting to Slack a fun Vox interview with Céline Sciamma, in which the Portrait of a Lady on Fire director/genius compares her own movie with Titanic. The greatest love stories, Sciamma asserts, aren’t about “eternal possession” but about “emancipation.” She also gloriously queers the archetypically hetero coupling at the center of Titanic, noting:
Leonardo DiCaprio was totally androgynous at the time. DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were both not known—not stars—so there was no power dynamic between them. Like, if you look at the sex scene in Titanic, she’s on top. He’s the one who’s being totally fragile and insecure.
But almost instantly, discussion broke out on one of Sciamma’s points: that DiCaprio was not yet a star in 1997, the year Titanic was released. Was he, in fact, an enormous star? Was he a teen star? What is a movie star, actually?! Does the Young Hollywood issue count!?!? Slate’s Gen Xers nearly came to blows. The debate brought work at the magazine to a halt with the terrible force of an iceberg to the starboard side. Tom Scocca and I will never speak again. But it was worth it. Read on and decide for yourself.
faith.smith: I’m sorry but Leo was famous well before Titanic
sam.adams: Gilbert Grape erasure
faith.smith: Growing Pains!
gabriel.roth: The Beach! (edit: turns out this was after Titanic) (edited)
willa.paskin: Oh that’s so funny because the scene where they are drawing each other in Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks exactly like the Titanic scene where Leo draws Kate. Heloise’s pose is the same. And in my mind I was bitchily like, “This is Titanic!” But it was on purpose!
willa.paskin: Leo wasn’t really famous before Titanic
willa.paskin: He was like a Teen Beat pinup
willa.paskin: After that he was famous famous
sam.adams: he was nominated for an Oscar
gabriel.roth: he starred in Romeo + Juliet
willa.paskin: Céline is correct that so much of Titanic’s appeal was that it was not two hugely known entities
gabriel.roth: but yeah i think it’s fair to say they didn’t go in with a huge difference in their Q rating
faith.smith: It says “not known” and that’s bull
dan.kois: the vast majority of adult moviegoers did not know Leonardo DiCaprio before Titanic came out
faith.smith: Y’all are crazy. He was on a popular prime-time TV show, in a huge movie, on tons of magazine covers.
dan.kois: (however, he was more famous than Kate Winslet)
tom.scocca: Yeah what no no no
sam.adams: The Pussy Posse stories lead me to question the “androgynous” part. But I support this attempt to queer the most normie of blockbusters, even if is not historically accurate
benjamin.frisch: Romeo + Juliet was huuuuuge with teenage girls
dan.kois: yes! but adults did not care about R+J and here is how many people saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Oscar nom or no:
tom.scocca: Romeo + Juliet was No. 1 at the box office
dan.kois: yes, it made a lot of money! but I believe it was resolutely a young-person phenomenon
tom.scocca: Leo was incredibly famous
tom.scocca: He was a movie star
faith.smith: Gah thank you, Tom. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills
tom.scocca: Titanic was a star vehicle for the famous Leonardo DiCaprio
dan.kois: what?! they made him audition!
dan.kois: an incredibly famous movie star does not audition against Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey!
dan.kois: I’m not saying he was an unknown. Winslet was an unknown. But he had NOTHING like the level of fame he had post-Titanic. He was very popular with teenage girls, he had some acting cred with cinephiles, but the vast majority of the movie-ticket-buying audience didn’t know or care who he was.
tom.scocca: He was super famous!!
tom.scocca: It’s like River Phoenix. River Phoenix’s filmography also doesn’t look like he was a top-tier star. But he was!
dan.kois: but then how do you define a top-tier star?
dan.kois: by hollywood standards River Phoenix certainly was not
dan.kois: he never once opened a movie big
tom.scocca: You know ‘em when you see ‘em
gabriel.roth: feel like this could be one of those things where it looks different if you’re right in the middle of the demo
willa.paskin: this is really retconning leo’s fame
tom.scocca: It’s really not!
tom.scocca: I can’t believe I’m being gaslighted by a room full of children
tom.scocca: I was a fully grown-ass adult and movie reviewer before Titanic
dan.kois: Tom, we’re all basically the same age as you
sam.adams: He was obviously more famous after Titanic, the biggest movie in the history of movies. But he was famous before it
willa.paskin: he was not that famous before it
willa.paskin: he had a supporting role on a dying sitcom
willa.paskin: and was famous with teens
tom.scocca: It’s not a retcon!
sam.adams: is “famous with teens” not famous?
sam.adams: I thought that basically was famous
dan.kois: it’s not the same as being a movie star
benjamin.frisch: He was on the cover of TIME in 1996!
forrest.wickman: Note: It was the international edition, in a story about the popularity of … William Shakespeare.
forrest.wickman: I think we’re just arguing about different wattages of stardom, teen star vs. megawatt four-quadrant star.
tom.scocca: Look as I have written, being a Movie Star is not actually traceable to being in big successful movies
faith.smith: How many lead roles in movies to be a freaking movie star?
willa.paskin: he opened a whole shitty mask movie right AFTER Titanic
willa.paskin: like, that made money because he had been in Titanic
willa.paskin: and couldn’t even get released before it
benjamin.frisch: Also on the cover of Vanity Fair in ’96
willa.paskin: if it’s the Young Hollywood issue it doesn’t count
dan.kois: Tim Roth was on the cover alongside Leonardo DiCaprio
dan.kois: famed movie star Tim Roth
tom.scocca: It’s important to look at the cover:
tom.scocca: To say he was in a group shot with Tim Roth is not really an accurate reading of the visual presentation there
willa.paskin: he was obviously an up-and-comer
willa.paskin: not saying movie reviewers and editors didn’t know who he was
tom.scocca: Here is Vanity Fair’s blowout January 1998 cover story about the famous young movie star Leo DiCaprio coming into his own, published as a PREVIEW OF THE UPCOMING STAR VEHICLE TITANIC
dan.kois: Yes, when has Vanity Fair ever puffed up a subject’s level of fame
laura.bennett: Leo himself has said Titanic was his big break. Important data point!
tom.scocca: Fame has changed a lot in the past couple of decades but I feel like one point of reference might be Timothée Chalamet? Like if Timothée Chalamet landed a role in an all-devouring blockbuster movie right now, nobody would try to argue, as Céline Sciamma did, that he was an unknown figure to the audience
tom.scocca: But Leo was much, much bigger than Timothée Chalamet is now.
dan.kois: Roughly the same proportion of the moviegoing audience knows who Timothée Chalamet is now as knew who Leonardo DiCaprio was in 1997. And I maintain it’s not a very high proportion.
dan.kois: I wonder if the boring answer is that in France, where presumably a 19-year-old Céline Sciamma saw Titanic, no one knew who Leonardo DiCaprio was
lowen.liu: I think we should open this up to the readers to weigh in.
dan.kois: I am happy to compile this Slack debate and edit it in a way that makes it clear I’m right.
dan.kois: OK, done