Bucket List Movie #436: Giant (1956)
If epic (the proper “epic”, not the tossed-around adjective of choice) films could be ranked and awarded in an Olympic category all their own, then, based on popularity and prestige, Gone With the Wind appears to be the gold medalist. The silver medalist would be the quintessential David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia, for possessing an almost frightening beauty, a deservedly legendary score by Maurice Jarre, and two star-making roles for Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. That leaves the plucky winner of the bronze: Giant, directed by the great George Stevens (Swing Time, Shane). Giant is an allegory on love, generational differences, old money versus new money, and how different people react to the slings and arrows thrown by life. Had it been made in the 1970s, it would have made a hell of a TV miniseries.
The movie opens with Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson), a Texan millionaire and cattle rancher, visiting a wealthy Maryland family to buy their horse (must be a heck of a horse to go the other side of the country for), and falling for their lovely daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). While Bick is reserved, conservative and traditional, Leslie is spirited, outspoken, and liberal-minded. Despite disagreements on topics such as how Texas was founded (Leslie points out that it was basically stolen from the Mexicans), you know what they say about opposites and, after knowing each other a mere two days, they are wed and on their way to Texas.
The contrast between Maryland and Texas is nothing short of staggering. While Maryland is a lushly green Technicolor dream of a place, Texas is a daunting land of light brown sand and dirt so expansive in its nothingness that the eventual shot of Bick’s estate startles us.
Tiresome Observation of the Day: Leslie throws aside a bland, potential suitor, Sir David Karfrey, in favor of Bick. Sir David is played by Rod Taylor, who, seven years later, would play a bland, potential suitor in The Birds. Typecasting sucks, doesn't it?
Despite her new surroundings, Leslie quickly adjusts, learning to handle Bick’s quietly tyrannical sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge, Hollywood’s go-to harridan), the brutal Texas heat, and the shifty flirtations of farm hand Jett Rink (James Dean), whose relationship with the Benedict family has always been complicated at best. Despite their passionate love for each other, Bick resents his wife’s forward thinking ways, whether it’s insisting on joining the men in a political discussion, or treating the Mexican servants and impoverished neighbors like-gasp!- equals. Meanwhile, Luz dies after being thrown from Leslie’s horse, and in her will she leaves Jett a portion of land which, by a stroke of luck, has oil. He strikes it, and becomes wealthier than Bick as a result.
We are then swept through the years, as Bick and Leslie become parents to three children, who grow up into equally strong-willed adults who aren’t interested in carrying on the family business: son Jordy (Dennis Hopper, unrecognizably wholesome) wants to be a doctor; his twin sister Judy (Fran Bennett) wants to marry and open a smaller ranch elsewhere; and youngest sister Luz (Carroll Baker) has fallen for big shot Jett, who now practically owns Texas, while Bick’s cattle empire is like a priceless urn that sits forgotten in the corner, collecting dust. Bick struggles with the changing times, feelings of insignificance, and his own inborn racism, while Jett reveals himself as the poster child for the old saying “money can’t buy happiness”.
Giant is a bona fide classic, though it tends to be recognized as being James Dean’s final film before his death. Yet it deserves just as much attention, if not more, for its incredible scope and cinematography, for it was shot on location in Marfa, Texas. Stevens is uncompromising in his vision, and he captures the massive prairie landscape with remarkable authority. This must have wowed audiences back then, and it is indeed fortunate that it has been released on Blu-ray. The strong performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, however, are what grabbed me. I never had any doubt Taylor could act, but Hudson always had to swim upstream more. His good looks always suggested the high school nerd who beefed up later in life, and he was frequently cast as the solid, laconic love interest in hit-or-miss dramas. While he was beloved by audiences, critics tended to scoff at his acting. I rank Hudson’s performance in Giant alongside Pillow Talk as one of his best. Bick is a hard-headed, sexist, prejudiced jerk, but Hudson wisely underplays him so he isn’t completely monstrous. I admit one of Giant’s biggest flaws is that we are cheated of proper character development for Bick. When Jordy marries a Mexican woman, Bick learns to accept her, and even defends her honor in the famous diner scene, but at the end still seems to lean on his quaint attitudes toward different races. Oh well, points for trying.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: Does it bother anyone else that Bick and Leslie, both raven-haired, have three red-headed kids? Some speculate that Leslie stepped out with Jett, but her feelings toward Jett seem maternal to me (also, he's blonde). Maybe rising stars Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker looked like crap as brunettes, I don't know.
As for James Dean, I confess I never really got his appeal. I don’t like it when actors insist on mumbling for the sake of realism (plenty of Texans enunciate, thank you very much), and Dean is damned near incoherent through most of the film. He isn’t a weak spot by any means, but he isn't truly fun to watch until he becomes rich. With his grayed, slicked back hair and tinted glasses, he looks for all the world like Stan Lee. Would Dean have become an even better actor had he lived? Would he be the legend he is now? Or would he have slipped into obscurity due to changing tastes? We will never know. I cannot deny that his pathetic final speech where he reveals (not surprisingly) that he still carries a torch for Leslie is one of the most memorable moments in Giant.
The reason I love Giant, though, is because of Elizabeth Taylor’s masterful portrayal of Leslie Benedict. She is at once lovely, graceful, and feminine, but also an independent woman with a sharp tongue and a sharper mind. She loves her husband but refuses to live under his thumb, and never lets anyone or anything get her down. She is one of the most vibrant female characters I’ve ever seen from a Golden Age Hollywood film, especially from the far-from-liberated 1950s.
The most extraordinary thing about Giant is that it has all the ingredients of a box office disaster. It went over-budget and over-schedule for a plethora of reasons (Dean’s death and Taylor giving birth to her son not the least of them). But the Gods of Cinema can be merciful once in a while, and Giant turned out to be Warner Bros. Studio’s highest grossing film for more than two decades (1978’s Superman finally broke the record). In the mid-fifties, Hollywood saw a shift in the status quo: people weren’t just looking for glossy entertainment anymore, they were ready to be challenged. Notably, this was around the time when director Billy Wilder was sneakily pushing the envelope in one unique film after the next. It was around this time that a handsome, Panama-raised black actor named Sidney Poitier was creating a stir in Hollywood by playing supporting characters with leading man charisma (he would become a leading man just a few years later), while movies like The Man With the Golden Arm dealt with drug addiction. Did Giant help usher in the more cutting edge films of the swinging 1960s? No, it’s still grand old Hollywood entertainment, but it dares to tackle issues such as race relations, modern women, and treats its audience like adults and refuses to follow familiar Western tropes: the white men aren't necessarily the good guys, the day isn't saved by a gunfight, and our leading lady ain't gonna stay home and fix grub while her husband has all the fun.
Giant addresses what we all know but like to deny: that none of us are giants, but only people, who will always be dwarfed by life and time.