Weeping Beauty 'Titanic,' for all its size, budget and special effects, is really just a romance novel on the high seas. Just ask the teen-age girls who are filling theaters with their tears.

January 21, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN COLUMNIST

Pity the poor Titanic buff.

The greatest disaster in maritime history has transfixed this guy since he was 8 years old and saw "A Night to Remember" with his father. Since then, he's read all the books, seen all the television specials.

And he rejoiced when he heard that special-effects master James Cameron was spending all the money in Hollywood to remake his favorite epic tragedy -- to scale. And he was patient when Cameron missed the opening weekend by six months so %% he could keep polishing this gem.

Can you imagine the confusion and dismay of this poor Titanic buff when, settled into his seat in the darkened theater, tingling with long-postponed anticipation, 8 years old again and every pore open to the techno-wonder about to unfold in front of him in full Dolby sound . . .

And the crying begins.

All around him.

It sounds like hundreds of 15-year-old girls in the hormonal red zone, snuffling into the sleeves of their Old Navy sweaters, weeping buckets over the Romeo and Juliet sub-plot.

Oh, no, he thinks. "Titanic" is a chick movie!

The house lights confirm those suspicions. Tear-streaked faces are still contorted with weeping as the credits roll and Celine Dion sings "My Heart Will Go On."

"Oh, god," one girl declares to another, as if there were any doubt: "I am, like, majorly crying."

The ladies bathroom is filled with more of her kind.

"Oh, god," the girls declare to their reflections in the mirror, "I am, like, so blotchy. My makeup is totally running."

Don't feel sorry for James Cameron, who spent two years of his life and all of his Hollywood capital, not to mention his share of the gross, to make the teen-age equivalent of "Steel Magnolias."

These weeping beauties are making his movie the box-office success it is.

"Titanic" has earned back more than Cameron spent on it, thanks to the baby-sitting money of teen-age girls who are not averse to paying $7 for a good cry. According to exit surveys conducted by Paramount Pictures, 20 percent of the audience is under 17, and girls outnumber boys, 2-to-1.

Repeat business

But blockbusters only become blockbusters through repeat business, and "Titanic" would never have broken even if all those girls weren't coming back again and again. More than 20 percent of the audience for "Titanic" is repeat viewers (the norm is a couple of percent), and 63 percent of those repeaters are under 25 -- 23 percent of them women and teen-age girls.

"I cried the second time, too," said Lisa Rogers, a 14-year-old from Edgewater, while she waited in the lobby of the Crown Theaters at Annapolis Harbor Center over the weekend to see "Titanic" a third time.

"I came to cry," said 13-year-old Jackie Roland of Edgewater, seeing it for a second time.

Teen-age girls buy their tickets certain of two things: The ship sinks in the end, and they will cry.

Girls are flocking to "Titanic," and then they are flocking again, some of them with their male friends in tow for love lessons from Leonardo DiCaprio.

"We're making them watch Leo," said 17-year-old Lauren Hildebrand of Severna Park. She was in line at the Crown with her girlfriends and a captive collection of boys from the senior class at Severna Park High School.

"We hope they learn all the right moves," said Dizzy Keller, 18, of Severna Park.

"Or at least, how to treat girls," chimed in Lauren.

Classmates Adam Huang, 18, and Chett Forbes, 18, stood woodenly in line behind the animated girls, looking for all the world like they were wearing dunce caps and preparing for a lifetime of being told by angry women that they "just don't understand." Looking at them, you knew they weren't going to respond properly to this movie -- and they knew it, too.

Only the unformed hearts of teen-age girls could stutter at the sight of DiCaprio's smooth cheeks and pre-pubescent body. Cameron cast him as Jack, the open-hearted, vagabond artist, before DiCaprio sent teen pulses racing in the remake of "Romeo and Juliet" with Claire Danes in the fall of 1996. At the time, Cameron figured he was hiring a relative unknown and was criticized for it.

But by the time "Titanic" premiered in Tokyo Nov. 1, Leonardo DiCaprio had become simply "Leo," and his name had become teen-speak short-hand for love.

"It was a mob scene," said Cameron after the Tokyo premiere. "It was Beatle-mania."

DiCaprio is pretty to look at and if you want to identify the appeal of "Titanic" to young girls, it is easy to credit him and his unruly forelock. But it may be that Kate Winslet -- as Rose, the suicidally unhappy Philadelphia debutante trapped in an arranged engagement -- is the secret draw of "Titanic" for girls.

"She is accessible to them," said Blaise Noto, executive vice president of publicity for Paramount Pictures. "She's pretty, but she is also rebellious and so they can identify with her."

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