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Tim Grierson on Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s Remarkable Post-“Titanic” Careers

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet

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Every once in a while, websites will run one of those “Where Are They Now?” features where they’ll spotlight a beloved old movie or TV show and then let you know what its cast members are up to these days. Normally, one of the actors has remained successful, while the rest of them had OK careers whose highlight was this specific movie or TV show. I realize such features are popular, but they always make me sorta sad. So many of these poor people are, say, 20 years removed from their biggest hit — it must be somewhat difficult to only be remembered for something a lifetime ago.

That’s what makes the 3D re-release of writer-director James Cameron’s “Titanic” this week so unusual. The Oscar-winning romantic drama, which opened December 1997, featured two rising young stars who haven’t been associated with a hit that mammoth since. (To be fair, though, almost no one has: It wasn’t until “Avatar” came around that “Titanic” was knocked off its perch as the highest-grossing movie of all time.) Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet became household names thanks to “Titanic,” but, somewhat miraculously, neither of them feel hopelessly chained to that film. They’ve gone on to impressive careers. That doesn’t happen that often.

You could argue that lots of people knew DiCaprio and Winslet before “Titanic.” And while that’s true, it’s important to go back and see what each actor’s biggest hit was before “Titanic.” For DiCaprio, it was “Romeo + Juliet,” which made $46 million and was sort of a dry run for Cameron’s high-stakes romantic tragedy. Meanwhile, Winslet had “Sense and Sensibility,” the Jane Austen adaptation that earned Winslet the first of six Oscar nominations and grossed $43 million. By comparison, “Titanic” made $601 million, which was far more than the two stars’ entire filmography combined to that point. Audiences may have been aware of DiCaprio and Winslet, but Cameron’s smash made them superstars.

The challenge, though, is what a superstar does next. Although Winslet was the one to get an Oscar nomination from “Titanic,” DiCaprio was the bigger name, and so his subsequent films had to contend with the expectations that they featured “the star of ‘Titanic.’” “The Man in the Iron Mask” was a modest performer, he had a small (but really funny) part in Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” and then he was the lead in “The Beach,” a critical and commercial disappointment that, just three years removed from “Titanic,” started to make people wonder if his star was beginning to wane.

But it was then that DiCaprio made a career decision that’s helped him immensely since: aligning himself with A-list filmmakers. In December 2002, he returned with Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” Additionally, DiCaprio, who had one Oscar nomination under his belt already with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” began making the transition from marquee dreamboat to serious actor. That hasn’t always gone smoothly — some still complain that his performances in “J. Edgar” and “The Aviator” lack the necessary authority and grit — but with two Oscar nominations and five $100-million-plus hits in the last 10 years, he’s clearly established himself as a star who earns both critical and commercial respect. That was hardly a sure thing when “Titanic” came out and he was just 23.

Unlike DiCaprio, Winslet never had such pressure after “Titanic.” Maybe it was because DiCaprio already had a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy, but Winslet wasn’t perceived as a “celebrity” in the same way. She was an actress, appearing in acclaimed indies like “Heavenly Creatures,” “Jude” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet.” If her co-star’s turn in “Titanic” seemed part of a well-designed ascent to stardom, Winslet’s involvement was a bit more out of leftfield.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that after “Titanic,” she went back to indies, very happily doing “Quills” or “Iris” and not worrying if audiences wondered why she wasn’t interesting in the spotlight. She’s done the occasional studio movie, like the romantic comedy “The Holiday,” but mostly the art house has been her domain, and she’s done terrific work in films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Little Children.” (She also won Best Actress for “The Reader.”) But it’s worth noting that the biggest hit she’s been associated with since “Titanic” was last year’s “Contagion,” which only made $76 million. But wisely, she’s never made box office numbers the way to gauge her success — it’s from the impressive body of work she’s already amassed at age 36.

Ironically, this weekend’s other big release is also beset with nostalgia: “American Reunion.” Looking at the poster for the film, which recreates the group-shot photo from “American Pie,” you can’t help but glance at the different actors and consider which ones have disappeared and which ones have had thriving careers. (Of that bunch, would you have guessed that Alyson Hannigan would be doing as well as any of them?) But with “Titanic,” there’s no such whatever-happened-to-so-and-so? awkwardness. In fact, we almost take it for granted that these two young stars have continued to be major onscreen presences. Honestly, they made it look rather easy. Even when they reunited for “Revolutionary Road” in 2008, the “Titanic” connection (though obvious) wasn’t that big of a deal. They’re two of our most constantly rewarding stars — them being in another movie together seemed natural.

Maybe that’s why both DiCaprio and Winslet have expressed a little embarrassment at seeing “Titanic” again 15 years later. Cameron said that he showed the film to DiCaprio and “[h]e said to me, ‘I’m such a young punk. Look at me.’ He was practically crawling under the seat.” As for Winslet, “I’ve seen little pieces of it,” she said, “but it’s a whole different me and we look much younger and our acting was different, hopefully not as good as now.”

And they’re both right. It’s a nice feather in an actor’s cap to be part of a film as popular and acclaimed as “Titanic.” But perhaps it’s even better to have gone on to do even better work since.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Nick Kroll and John Mulaney To Host Spirit Awards

The Spirit Awards Air February 25 LIVE on IFC.

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The 2017 Spirit Awards have finally found their frontmen: Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. And it’s no wonder. Just marvel in their splendid chemistry back when they appeared on Comedy Bang! Bang!:

The pair are prolific within the performing arts community: television (Kroll in The League and The Kroll Show, Mulaney as a writer of IFC’s own Documentary Now!), theater (including Broadway’s current Oh Hello Show), and stand-up comedy. In fact, it’s entirely possible that emceeing an awards show is one of the few remaining line items on their professional bucket lists.

It’s important to caveat this announcement, however. Unlike the bigger and more ubiquitously known awards shows, the Spirit Awards are not, well…boring. (We’re talking to you, Oscar.)

They’re funny. They’re honest. They have quality to match the red-carpet fanfare. And that’s alarmingly special. Last year’s show included some legitimately historic moments, like when transgender actress Mya Taylor won best supporting female, or Kate McKinnon’s hilarious and timely parody of Carol. See more highlights here to get the flavor of the Spirit Awards and read all about Film Independent to dig deeper.

The 2017 Spirit Awards air live February 25 at 5P ET exclusively on IFC.

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Ho Ho Ha

Xmas Miracles You’ll See At Joe’s Pub

Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special Premieres December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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It’s just so tempting to bah-humbug the holiday season. And while there’s much we can’t wait to put behind us, one thing left to look forward to with pure and wide-eyed joy is Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special, starring Tony Hale. It’s a celebration in the true spirit of those splendid TV specials from the ’70s and ’80s, complete with special guests, musical numbers, awkward segues and an (intentionally) wafer-thin narrative through line.

As if you need more convincing, here are a few juicy nuggets to get excited for…

Tony Hale plying the captive audience with hot chocolate (and it working).

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Bridget Everett dressed like an ornament…

and in a state of nearly constant wardrobe malfunction.
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Matteo Lane hitting a crazy high note in a Snuggie.

Not a Slanket. There’s a meaningful difference.

Lisa Loeb creeping on Kurt Vile.

#hairlikeapony #whynotme
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Judah Friedlander getting replaced by a robot…

and it pretty much going as expected.
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Bottom line: the miracles abound. Grinches, Scrooges, and Tiny Tims alike will find their Holiday joy. And it’ll be awkward–in the most wonderful kind of way.

Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special premieres Wednesday December 21 at 10p on IFC

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