“Giant”– (1956)

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“Giant” is indeed the perfect title for this film.

This is because it is an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel called “Giant.” What the hell else would they call it? “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”?

Forgive me. Just a little film critic humor.

In all seriousness, I love “Giant.” It is a huge picture, spanning roughly 30 years in the life of Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his wife, Leslie, née Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor). Benedict owns the huge (590,000 acre) ranch, Reata, where his family has raised cattle for three generations. Reata is run by Bick’s leathery spinster sister, Luz (leathery Mercedes McCambridge), and a bunch of ranch hands, including the twitchy Jett Rink (The twitchy James Dean).

The film starts with young, handsome Bick travelling to Maryland to buy a prize stallion, War Winds (“Beauty” (Beauty the horse only starred in the one film, according to IMDB.com, but he raised the bar for generations of horse/actors who follow in his hoofprints)). While in Maryland, Bick finds that there are actually two lovely animals he’d like to mount, the second being spirited young Leslie. Bick pays $10,000 for War Winds, and marries Leslie, hauling them both back to Texas.

Luz is jealous of this Eastern outsider who married Bick. One day, Luz takes War Winds for a ride, and abuses the poor horse. Eventually, it wrecked (or whatever horses do). Luz was critically wounded, and War Winds had to be put down. In her will, Luz leaves a small piece of Reata to Jett. Bick tries to buy him out, but Jett is obstinate, and hates Bick as much as he loved Luz.

Jett strikes oil, and becomes hugely rich.

Time passes, as Bick & Leslie raise three kids of their own, and watch them move out into the world. Jett grows richer and lonelier. He builds a giant (no pun intended) airport and hotel, inviting hundreds of oil-rich Texans to the grand opening. He drinks himself stuporous, and passes out on the dais before he can give his triumphant speech.

“Giant” is a huge film. It clocks in at 3 hour, 22 minutes. So much life time is covered, though, that it never feels long to me. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have amazing chemistry together–they were very close friends from “Giant” through Hudson’s death in 1985–and the film never seems to bog down in any one spot.

Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor Oscars.

I’d have voted for Hudson, myself. James Dean was killed a few hours after he finished filming. Dean had a meteoric career, with two Oscar nominations in his three starring roles. I’m not sure what kind of longevity he would have had. I don’t know how good he would have proved, ultimately. He worshipped Marlon Brando. Brando saw Dean as a good-looking kid who was a wannabe. Dean had charisma, to be sure, but if you compare him to some of the other Method actors of the time–say Brando and Montgomery Clift–Dean doesn’t seem as impressive. Watch Brando in “The Godfather,” “Last Tango in Paris,” or “Apocalypse Now,” and he gives three amazing performances in three very different films. Check out the clip I posted a few months ago, with Monty Clift in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” There are times where Jett would be, say, walking, and you could see Dean acting each individual step. He had some good scenes in “Giant.” I still think Rock Hudson was far better in this film. He at least seemed to be in the same film as everyone else, and interacted quite well with other characters. Dean seemed to treat every scene as some sort of drama class experiment; his performance in “Giant” wasn’t a character portrayal, but a sort of portfolio clip-reel.

Anyway, that’s just me.

“Giant” covers many issues, including race, war, poverty, and the post-WW2 change in family dynamics. It doesn’t seem heavy-handed, and I really like Hudson and Taylor as a couple. Dennis Hopper does a nice job as Jordan Benedict, III, the first Jordan Benedict who doesn’t want to be a rancher.

Don’t watch “Giant” if you’re in a hurry. The first time I saw it, I watched it twice. I was doing evenings at WSJT. Giant was on at 8pm, then again at midnight on TCM, I think. The part-timer who was supposed to come in at midnight didn’t. I was stuck on the air till 3:30am, so I had plenty of time to watch. That took the sting out of the long airshift.

It’s an epic in cowboy boots, and I recommend it.

Grade: A

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2 Responses to ““Giant”– (1956)”

  1. The problem with comparing James Dean to Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift is that Dean died when he was 24 and still maturing as an actor. It’s possible he might have flamed out by the time he was 30, but we’ll never know that. I mostly give him credit for starting the “Live fast, die young” credo that powered the punk rock and later youth movements. Though now that I’ve managed to live past 50, I think an early death is overrated. ;-)

    Nice review, tom. I haven’t watched “Giant” in years, but now I want to find an online version and spend an evening with Rock and Liz.

    • tomzone Says:

      You make a good point. Brando was 27 when he did the film of “Streetcar,” and Dean never made it to 27 (Brando was 24 when he created the role on Broadway). He may have grown as an actor. Brando studied extensively. Hell, his mom taught acting, and helped Henry Fonda.

      To understand the phenomenon, I’d have had to be a moviegoer at the time. Same with the Beatles: they’ve just always been.

      One thing that surprised me is that “Giant” was Warner Bros’ highest-grossing film till “Superman”, which starred middle-aged Marlon Brando. :-)

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