Although Cal looks unfazed and continues to ensure self-preservation, Billy Zane’s performance hints that there is more to this egotistical jerk. Although Cal’s inability to unlearn the layers of toxic masculinity and class-based entitlement is his own failing, he is also trapped in the mindset of his era. The weight of his failings is too much to bear when he loses his wealth in the Wall Street Crash of 1929; there’s something tragic about someone tying their worth exclusively to wealth, so much so they decide to cease living without it. As Cal was never able to appreciate himself without basing his value on social status, he extended this same cruelty to those around him. The result was a smug know-it-all who threw tantrums the moment he did not get his way, forever closed off to spontaneous emotions that plunged into the depths of humanity.
There has been some discourse surrounding Cal and his villain status in “Titanic,” where he has been lauded as a hero instead or his actions have been entirely justified. I would argue the following: It is perfectly possible to recognize Cal as the deeply problematic, flawed antagonist who raises the stakes and still empathize with his eventual fate. Cal might’ve felt understandably jilted by Rose’s blatant rejection, which led to him to lashing out the way he did. Again, it is understandable but not justifiable.
Nevertheless, “Titanic” would be incomplete without Zane’s Cal, as it would be half a story about lost love and how it holds on to us for years to come. A love story worth rooting for through the ages requires a worthy foil, who manages to be sickly smooth and infuriating, and a bit complex all at once. For better or worse, Cal Hockley checks all the boxes.