Giant: James Dean casts a giant shadow on this sprawling Texan epic

Giant(1956), directed by George Stevens and starring Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor was Dean’s last film, and it was released after his death.

“Everybody thought I had a duster. Y’all thought ol’ Spindletop Burke and Burnett was all the oil there was, didn’t ya? Well, I’m here to tell you that it ain’t, boy! It’s here, and there ain’t a dang thing you gonna do about it! My well came in big, so big, Bick and there’s more down there and there’s bigger wells. I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ‘un. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you ever thought you could have — you and all the rest of you stinkin’ sons of…Benedicts!”

 

Immortal words spoken by James Dean in his final film Giant(1956). Those words could very well have been spoken by Dean in real life, because Dean was as cocky, gloating, rebellious, anti-authoritarian as the character Jett Rink he played in the film. In Giant, adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel by director George Stevens,  James Dean’s character Jett Rink is described  as: “Discontented, cheated out of his birthright, feeling deeply the inequality and unfairness of his position“; a description that would perfectly suit Dean as well; Rink was an outsider, who  remained an outsider throughout the course of the story, thumping his nose at the aristocratic cattle barons, even as he became richer and powerful than any of them. Jett is a handyman at Reata, the approximately 595,000 acre ranch, belonging to the Benedict family in Texas. The current owner of the ranch is ‘Bick’ Jordan Benedict(Rock Hudson)  and his sister Luz Benedict(Mercedes McCambridge). Jett has a contentious relationship with Bick; Jett is sort of a thorn in Bick’s side, and he treats him harshly. Luz, on the other hand, is soft on Jett; there is a strange connection between Luz and Jett, it’s either maternal or romantic, or  a mix of both. Luz also seems to share a strange relationship with her brother Bick, which is not explicitly incestuous, but it is a bit ambiguous; she does hold a certain amount of control over her brother. Bick goes east to buy a horse and returns with a new bride Leslie Lynnton(Elizabeth Taylor). Leslie tries to take over the administration of the house and the ranch, much to the chagrin of Luz. Seeing her grasp on Bick, and the ranch, slipping away, Luz vents her ire on Leslie’s horse, WarWinds, repeatedly thrusting her spurs into the horse’s flesh, as she takes it out on a rough ride; an angry Warwinds hits back, throwing her off its back, instantly killing Luz. Hurt by Luz’s death, Bick kills Warwinds. Now Leslie becomes the ‘Lady’ of Reata, but Luz had planned her own secret revenge on Bick (either for abandoning her for Leslie or  as a sincere token of affection for Jett); in her will, Luz bequeaths a small part of her share of Reata land to Jett. An angry Bick tries to buy the land back from Jett, at double the price, but Jett dos not oblige. He feels an attachment to the land and wants to keep it for himself. Meanwhile, Jett has fallen in love with Leslie, which of course remain one sided, and he never explicitly expresses his feelings for her.

Leslie remains devoted and faithful to Bick, even as they become parents to 3 children: a boy and 2 girls. But the marriage is not without it’s conflicts. Leslie, having raised in the cosmopolitan east, proves herself to be tough, independent, and outspoken, and forces Bick to confront sexism and racism issues in his social circle. Leslie shows unusual compassion to Mexican peasants living in a nearby village, and displays disgust when Bick attempts to exclude her from business conversations. Despite some tough times, the marriage between Bick and Leslie endures; they raise their three children and watch them all grow into young boys and girls. Their son marries a Mexican-American girl and has a child with her, who, to Bick’s utter disappointment, doesn’t look anything like their paternal grandparents. Bick’s children also choose to have independent careers of their own, and refuse to take up the responsibility of running Reata. Meanwhile, Jett strikes oil on his land and he is so overjoyed, he rides his truck to the Benedict household and gloats about his achievement. he is fully drenched in oil, and in front of everyone, he reveals his feelings for Leslie. An angry Bick strikes him , but Jett strikes him back multiple times and rides away on his truck. In time, Jett becomes rich beyond anybody’s wildest imagination. But the more powerful he becomes, the more unhappy he gets; he is still pining for the love of Leslie, and he gets addicted to alcohol. He is still holding on to his lifelong animosity for the Benedicts;  and having turned into a full blown alcoholic, ends up becoming a lonely, ghostly figure in his old age; enormously rich and influential, but without a soul or inner life. To fill the void he tries to seduce Leslie’s daughter – the aptly named – Luz II, after her aunt. But Luz soon discovers that Jett is in love with her mother and not her. By the end of the film, we see Jett ‘ almost finished’. Alcohol has completely consumed him, and at the launch of his hotel – aptly named Emperador – and airport, where he is to be crowned as the New king of the West, he collapses, not able to say a single word.

Giant, which  tells the story of three generations of the  wealthy Benedict family and their arch nemesis Jett Rink, covers 25 years, starting from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, a grand period in Texan history when rapid changes were taking place, both in the state, country and the world at large. A period when the cattle barons were being overtaken by the oil tycoons. Oil became synonymous with power and wealth and changed the landscape of Texas forever. Giant shows the cataclysmic effects of the oil discovery on everyone who came into contact with it. James Dean, who was born in 1931 and never lived to see his 25th birthday has a lot in common with the character of Jett Rink. Like Jett, Dean was an outsider and a rebel and quite an antagonist in real life. He was a very complex, intriguing, mysterious character; much more troubled than any character he brought to life on screen; and it must be said that he played only troubled characters in his 3 films. And like Jett, Dean was pretty much an orphan. Dean lost his mother in 1940, when he was only 9 years old, and he was abandoned by his cold, distant, unemotional father after his mother’s death. Dean never reconciled with his father, and had a contentious relationship with all authoritarian paternal figures in his life – from the directors to the studio heads.  In his first film East Of Eden, Dean worked with his idol, Marlon Brando’s favorite director Elia Kazan, and pretty much copied Brando’s mumbling mannerisms. But Kazan was a brilliant ‘Actor’s director’ , who  used it for the benefit of the character that Dean was playing, which wasn’t very different from what Dean was in real life. When the film was released, it became a big hit, turning Dean into an overnight star.

Dean was shooting for his second film, Rebel without a Cause, when he was cast for George Stevens’ Giant. As an actor, he was not as well trained or talented as Brando or Montgomery Clift, but he had great instincts for the right emotion for the moment he was playing, and improvised the hell out of every scene, making them better and more truthful; something that even George Stevens- an old-fashioned, meticulous director, who hated improvisations- had to accept. And Just as Jett self-destructed in the movie, after he became rich and powerful, Dean too went the same way. His passion for cars and fast driving proved to be his undoing. In the novel, Jett is a gigantic figure and a complete opposite to the diminutive, wiry Dean, hence the original choice was Robert Mitchum, but then Stevens decided to go with Dean after he saw him in East of Eden. The rest of the casting, however, proved taxing for Stevens. For the role of Leslie, he had envisioned Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, but they chose not to do the film, Finally, Elizabeth Taylor, who had already made one picture with Stevens, A Place in the Sun: a film that luminously transformed her from a child actress  to a leading lady, was selected for the role. Liz (as she was popularly known) was 23 at the time, already twice married and mother of two children, was perhaps at the height of her stunning beauty. Indeed, the most beautiful thing in a most gorgeous looking film like Giant is its leading actress. This was Liz, before all that illness and excessive boozing and brawling with two time husband Richard Burton took over her; which would eventually bog her down and negatively affect her physically, emotionally and Career-wise. Liz would turn in a great performance in the film, which i consider one of her career-best. For the role of Bick Benedict, Stevens wanted William Holden, but the role eventually went to Rock Hudson,  who till then had only made cheesy films like Taza, Son of Cochise. Giant offered him the best role of his career.

For a novel that basically deals with giant human beings (though flawed) in relation to the gigantic landscape that surround them; as well as handle some serious topics related to economy, race relations and socio-politics (albeit all done in a soap operatic form) it is both advantageous and disadvantageous for the film that its director is  George Stevens. Stevens’ screenplay is a vast improvement over the novel, he handles the intimate drama between the marital couple extremely well. But he is not a natural choice for capturing characters and their emotions with the splendor of the landscape that represent them. Stevens’ strength is strong drama and character interactions that unfold in intimate surroundings and it is obvious when we see this film; the film, for the majority of it’s running time, remains a Chamber piece, and a claustrophobic one at that, with most of the action taking place interiors, either inside the sprawling Benedict mansion, the Mexican huts, Leslie’s Maryland home or hotels- the final 100 minutes of this 200 minute film take place pretty much indoors, or on sound stages, as the exteriors of Texas completely disappears; a strict no-no for an epic film in which Texas is supposed to be star. It’s not that the film doesn’t have those panoramic visuals of the terrain, on the contrary, the  film has it’s share of impressive and sometimes breathtaking shots that convey the scale of the expansive outdoors, but, majority of them are in the first half of the film. The few outdoor shots that are interspersed between scenes of lengthy dialogues and dramatic tension, staged in lavish interiors, appears to be set pieces in themselves. To understand the point I am making, just watch John Ford’s The Searchers made the very same year. See the simple brilliance, economy and effortlessness in Ford’s compositions and how he conveys the beauty of the landscape in relation to the human drama unfolding. One doesn’t seem separate from the other,  as opposed to the highly labored, unsubtle filmmaking of Stevens. Then there is a blatant sense of stagy formality that marks much of  Stevens’s shot compositions. He is a good director at blocking out scenes with actors, but he is not at all good with staging; the camera hardly moves, with scenes played out in lengthy tableau; no close ups, no inter cuts, not even camera angle changes, which gives the film a very cold feel; it flattens out the emotion completely. There is an extreme obsession with being classy and sophisticated at the cost of drama, that pervades all of Stevens’ films; which is particularly pronounced here; and would reach monstrous proportions with his Jesus Christ biography The Greatest Story ever Told, whose failure would pretty much finish his career. The soap opera roots of the film actually comes in handy in these portions, which makes the proceedings entertaining, in spite of Stevens’ cold direction. The film really needed a John Ford to get the mix of visual splendor and drama right and also to give us a real slice of Americana (or Texicana); complete with music, dancing, brawling ,comedy, rich earthy dialogue and an assortment  of colorful characters played by earthy actors. Here all the supporting characters are colorless and they hit a single note: dead serious. Stevens is so self-serious and self-important and wears the mantle of an artist so self-consciously that it becomes tiresome after a point of time , and it gets downright dull in the last hour of the film, which is completely set around Jett opening a new hotel and airport.

Another issue  is Stevens’ yen for over-direction; his penchant for using broad strokes and metaphors to ride home points again and again – or worse- the same point again and again. Much of the issues relating to race, marital differences, class difference, which are fresh and excitingly handled in the first hour of the film, all appear in the final hour too , in far more convoluted and uninteresting ways. but nothing beats the final scenes of the film. Bick getting into a huge brawl with a racist restaurant owner, who refuses to serve the Mexicans in the family; the brawl played out against rousing music – the yellow rose of Texas. Bick loses the brawl , but the film puts an optimistic twist to it, that finally  he had won the war in  getting rid of the racist in him; he has now accepted  his mixed race grandson. But the scene succeeding this, which is intended to be a grand bookend to the whole film, is even worse: Bick and Leslie’s son Jordie has fathered a Chicano child with his Mexican wife, while their daughter Judy has given birth to a Caucasian son with her white husband. The final image shows Judy’s Caucasian child with a white lamb behind him, whereas a black calf stands behind Jordie’s Chicano child. The two share the same crib, which suggests that we’re all human beings living in the same world, and therefore we should all treat each other with equality. But the animals in the image have another association. A white lamb was chosen for the white child and the black calf for the multiracial child, and the animals create a negative racial commentary. Stevens’ unintended metaphor reinforces generalizations based on race and underscores difference rather than promoting equality; and to think that this is the visual moment from the novel that drove Stevens to make this film. It’s very much a superficial , overdone scene where Stevens manage to outsmart himself. Stevens was a liberal, but he was not the best person to portray such liberal values in a film, and he merely uses them as an excuse to create dramatic tension, rather than as a honest exploration of these prickly issues. He does something very similar with Leslie’s character too; she starts out as a proto-feminist, but then is left hanging, as the masculine drama takes over. In one of the final confrontation scenes between Bick and son Jordy, where they go at each other over Bick’s racism, Leslie is just a passive, silent observer, who is positioned very far way from the drama, at the very deep end of the deep focus frame.

But that’s not to say that the film is without merit. As i said, Stevens tone down the cheesy, hyperbolic nature of the source. In the novel, Benedict’s ranch Reata is 2.5 million acres (seriously!), it has been reduced to a much more convincing 595,000 acres. The film looks great, thanks to the spectacular work by production designer Boris Leven, who created the Benedict’s Victorian mansion. The interior designing of the house is also top notch, reflecting the changing times. Stevens’ beginning in silent films and his work on Tracy\Hepburn films , helps in staging some of the most melodramatic scenes subtly and wordlessly. Take the courtship scene between Bick and Leslie. We see them both falling in love from the moment Bick sees her riding the horse, but it’s never explicitly stated. The real electricity between them becomes obvious at the breakfast table in the Lynnton dining room, when Bick is ready to go back to Texas. After breakfast  the group disperses outside so that Dr. Lynnton can drive Bick to the train station. But emotional fireworks have flown during the meal; Bick and Leslie had a passionate  argument about the history of Texas. And as Leslie’s father calls out to Bick to get in the car, or they would miss the train, Bick’s eyes are fixed on Leslie, who is seen walking to the fence in front of the house. He follows her to the fence, and as they stand together, War Winds comes galloping towards them. they both start petting the horse and looking into each other’s eyes, and as Dimitri Tiomkin’s  love theme rises to envelop the moment, the screen fades out. In the next scene, we see Leslie and Bick are in a train, now already married, and returning to Texas as man and wife. A similar lengthy (wordless) sequence set in Leslie’s house comes later too, in a scene where Bick and Leslie makes up after a marital tiff; Bick arrives (unannounced) in Maryland, to be with an estranged Leslie during her sister’s marriage, and his surprise visit leads to a a happy reunion between husband and wife; a scene structured specifically to mirror the moment of Bick and Leslie’s wedding , which we never saw in the film. Stevens has a nice touch with this sort of drama , and gets really good performances from Hudson and Taylor .  But this kind of tastefulness and stateliness only go so far, and his failing is that he tries to apply this technique to every scene and emotional moment, which flattens out much of the drama , and gives the film a highly ‘choreographed’ feel. Everything is so measured and quantified that it becomes artificial after a point. the same with the performances too . We can literally see Hudson being a puppet, pulled in different directions by Stevens, the puppet master behind the camera

But then there is James Dean; one of the great pleasures of watching Giant is seeing Dean cut loose in a very formal, stately film. He is so wild, unpredictable and inventive, in relation to the rest of the actors and the rest of the film, that he practically remains outside of the film. On it’s own, Dean’s scenes are electrifying and he is the reason why the film works to such a great extend. But as it happens with the film, after the first 100 minutes of this 200 minute movie, Jett Rink, like the Texan landscape, completely recedes into the background, which makes the last 100 minutes a real slog. Also, Stevens is good at  directing , what i refer to as, ‘Studio-made stars’, like Hudson and Taylor. he can pull them and push them in any which way he wants. But he is not very good with modern, method actors like Clift and Dean, who has very different attitude towards their craft. Clift did not enjoy working with Stevens and dismissed him as a craftsman, not an artist ( which is true really), he never worked with the director again, though Stevens courted him to star in both Shane and Giant. It was the same with Dean too, Stevens first tried to choreograph his acting , like he was doing to Hudson; for the famous scene where Jett marks out his territory allocated to him in Luz’s will, Stevens put paper markers for Dean to walk. An angry Dean picked up the markers and returned them to Stevens, telling him that if he ever did it again, he would catch the first flight back to Hollywood. He then did the scene as he intended, and the scene , as he marks out the fence and finally climbs the windmill and sit on it, is extraordinary. But as Jett Rink evolves into a surly oil tycoon, Dean goes out of control. He really needs someone like Kazan or Nicholas Ray to shape him up, when his instincts let him down; his very final scene in the movie (and his film career): a mumbling, drunken monologue showcases the worst excesses of his style of acting.. Another Stevens trait that annoyed the two method actors is his penchant for shooting a scene from every angle possible; which meant multiple takes for each camera angle (Dean called it round-the-clock shooting). Stevens never had a clear idea how to stage scenes , and he would film a scene from every angle possible; and that too in every style: mid shot, master shot, close up, which is the reason why his films were so expensive and time consuming. For Giant, he shot close to a million feet of film, and then spend a whole year editing it down to 200 minutes. And for all the effort taken to shoot scenes in every way possible, the final film is more or less made up of a series of master shots, with very little cutaways. The film also suffers from some simply awful makeup effects, when it comes to the aging of Bick, Leslie, and Jett.  Hudson, Taylor, and Dean are provided with ridiculous mops of silver blue hair to denote middle age, but otherwise appear to suffer no wrinkles, weight gain or change in posture –  though Dean does shave his head and affects an old man’s body language, which is not always successful. The effect is amateurish in the extreme, and becomes an unfortunate distraction in the film’s latter stages.

Obviously, it’s hard to complain about a film like Giant in today’s times , when that kind of passionate and epic filmmaking has all but disappeared from screen. The film is unarguably ambitious, both visually and thematically, and  boasts a mammoth scale, and although the achievement fails to fully match the intent, the result is still impressive to an extend; at least It is very watchable for most of its running time. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, but won only for Stevens’ direction. Both James Dean and Rock Hudson were nominated for best actor, but they lost to Yul Brynner in King & I. Giant was a big hit at the box office, and was at the time the biggest hit in Warner Bros. history. As for Dean, he is the reason why the film is mostly remembered today. He died after he finished his portions.  George Stevens had insisted upon a contractual ban against his racing until Dean’s work on Giant was completed. When  his work on Giant was finally done, Dean was free to do whatever he wished. So on September 30, 1955, he took his new car for a spin with his friends. He had already received a speeding ticket earlier that day, but continued to drive recklessly. In the end, Dean’s Porsche Spyder slammed into a big Ford sedan driven by a college student named Donald Turnupseed. Nobody knows how fast Dean was driving. The Ford was making a left turn into the path of the Porsche Spyder, and Turnupseed maintained that he never saw the approaching car. It would have been hard to see the small, lowslung, silver racer in the late-afternoon haze. Dean did everything he could to brake in time, but it was not enough. He was killed instantly and his friend Rolf Wütherich was thrown into the ditch alongside the road, severely injured. Dean was not wearing his seat belt, and the passenger’s side did not have a seat belt. Ironically, just a few days before his death, Dean had done an ad for National Safety Council , and instead of saying “Drive safely, the life you save may be your own.” , he said: “Take it easy driving, the life you might save might be mine.”

2 thoughts on “Giant: James Dean casts a giant shadow on this sprawling Texan epic

  1. Hi Mank
    This was a really educational and interesting article! I liked the movie Giant but I had some issues with it when it came to the staging and blocking, and the lack of outdoor scenes. I wasn’t able to exactly figure out what the issue was. Your analysis was very helpful in understanding this. Thanks!
    Also, I have a couple of minor corrections to suggest:
    1. Jett’s hotel is named Emperador, not Conquistador
    2. The animals used at the end are a white lamb and a black calf, not a black sheep

    Thanks again!

    Like

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