Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giant: 1956's Timely and Timeless Epic

'Giant' with '50s icons Jimmy Dean, Liz, and Rock. Please don't remake this, Hollywood!

Giant is often described as sprawling. Released Thanksgiving weekend in 1956, the Texas-sized saga certainly has one foot in Hollywood’s golden era and the other in modern film-making. Yet, it’s due to director George Stevens’ stellar storytelling that Giant is both entertaining and intelligent. The more traditional movie epic moments cause some critics to dismiss the film entirely, missing the sharp social message in the tale of the super rich Texans.
Bick and Leslie, either bickering or loving up to each other!

The Edna Ferber behemoth bestseller was snapped up by Warner Brothers, intended as the Texas answer to Gone with the Wind. The book had it all: A hard-headed hero, a charismatic bad boy, and a feisty female that they both love, set against three decades of changing times and fortunes in colorful Texas cattle and oil country. Director George Stevens cast Rock Hudson in his best role, James Dean in his last, and Elizabeth Taylor in the film that made her a superstar. Stevens cannily mixed the crowd-pleasing aspects of Giant with an honest look at the downside of the American Dream: poverty, politics, racism, sexism, materialism, and greed.
This famous still from 'Giant' was not even in the movie.

Some critics at the time, even now, sometimes focus on Giant’s epic aspects, citing it as a super soap opera. Giant came out in an era when epics about strong, self-made men and their imported brides were all the rage.
I also happened to catch 1954’s The Naked Jungle as well as Giant over Thanksgiving. This cinematic turkey starred comatose Charlton Heston and posturing Eleanor Parker as at-odds newlyweds who finally bond over fighting soldier ants that invade their Brazilian chocolate plantation. That’s it, that’s the whole story! Also in ’54 was Elephant Walk starring Elizabeth Taylor, in a dry run for Giant. Taylor played a British bride swept off her feet by moody Ceylon tea plantation owner Peter Finch. The couple also has a rocky honeymoon, but team up while fighting off rampaging elephants, headed right through their plantation. These films are typical of their era, empty escapism with none of Giant’s three-dimensional characters and dramatic realism.
Giant aims for the greater picture. After a whirlwind romance with over-aged bachelor Bick Benedict, Leslie Lynnton is whisked off to Texas as his bride. No angry elephants or relentless ants here.  However, Leslie encounters a hard-ass sister-in-law, rowdy ranchers, prejudice toward Mexicans, greed, and macho men who resent strong-minded women.

George Stevens was at the peak of his cinematic skills with Giant. Intimate moments mix with scenes of grandeur. The opening Virginia fox hunt racing with a locomotive mingles with Liz’ belle alternately flirting and tangling with visiting Texan Rock over breakfast: “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean, away from Mexico.”
Liz as Leslie: Both star and character were outspoken!

Upon returning to their Texas ranch, Reata, Bick and Leslie’s differences are obvious. As the bride gushes over the bouquet his Mexican workers gave her, the rancher’s racism comes out.
Bick: “Leslie, don’t behave like that… Here we don’t make a fuss over those kind of people. You’re a Texan now.”
Leslie: “Is that a state of mind? I’m still myself.”
Not only is the frank exchange still startling for a ‘50s movie, but so is a wife who doesn’t simper over her manly husband like a June Allyson.
Leslie about to give Bick and his buddies a piece of her mind!

The set-piece of Giant’s first half is when liberal-minded Leslie squares off with Bick after electing to join the men folk talking politics, instead of the wives’ sewing circle. When told that she’d be bored by their “men stuff,” Taylor is in fine fiery form: “Men stuff! Lord have mercy! What is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can’t enter into it?”
Later the debate is taken upstairs, with a funny shot of the guest rooms’ lights popping on as Leslie and Bick continue their fight. The next morning, after the bickering Benedicts have kissed and made up, their banter heats up again when Bick pronounces that their Reata ranch will be run his way, and by his future son, as well.
Bick: “Everything that has a Reata brand on it is run by me!”
Leslie: “Does that include me?!”
This is Stevens neat way of letting Leslie tell her husband a baby is actually on the way, but also letting us know that their differences will not be easily solved. As Leslie consolingly cradles Bick’s head, the scene ends with a closeup of her saying that their son will be “a boy very much like his father. In many ways. But not all.”
Dennis Hopper as Liz and Rock's son in 'Giant'...what a family!

Giant was one of those ensemble epics that were a spring board for promising stars Taylor, Hudson, and Dean and newcomers Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, and Earl Holliman, yet also benefited from great character actors such as Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, and Jane Withers. Wills is especially good as Benedict family confidante Uncle Bawley.

The aging makeup seems basic today, but it was a departure from depicting age with merely a silver streak running through the stars’ hair or trying to make a “mature” star look young. Of the three leads, Hudson is the most convincing as middle-aged. Rock was beefy and laid-back even then, plus wardrobe padded his middle and outfitted him a weighted belt. Rock’s steady persona and resonant voice were well-suited for the old-school Bick. Often mocked as the typical studio-created movie star and obsolete as an Edsel by the time ‘60s movie realism took hold, it’s important to remember that there’s always been a crowdpleaser cinema star. Today’s version of Rock Hudson is now the equally memorably-named Channing Tatum.
Leslie is a tough Texan with attitude, with Bick looking on.

At 23, Taylor’s make-up as middle-aged Leslie is the most noticeable, but Stevens tapped into Taylor’s strong maternal quality and simmers down her younger, outspoken self. Though Taylor later received accolades for more theatrical roles, Elizabeth is actually at her best when she is under-stated. There are many scenes that show film skills Taylor began learning as a child star: the subdued confrontation with her overbearing sister-in-law; the son’s birthday party where Leslie watches with increased exasperation at Bick’s insistence that their boy ride his new pony; and especially when parents’ Bick and Leslie are at cross purposes while discussing their children’s futures. Notice in this scene, Stevens filmed the scene with the couple in twin beds, Hudson’s newspaper blocking out Taylor. Stevens made Taylor rely on her voice in her performance, an attribute Liz was often criticized for.
James Dean as Jett Rink: His well comes in at last!

James Dean starred in only three movies, yet his name conjures up many myths, might seem overrated. Watching Giant again, Jimmy practically jumps out from the screen as stubborn, sexy, and ultimately sad, as Jett Rink. Often observing from the sidelines, Dean steals nearly every scene he’s in.
Mooning over his former boss’ wealth and wife, Leslie stops by Rink’s ramshackle ranch for tea. Jett also pours out his dreams for riches.
Leslie: “Money isn’t all, you know.”
Jett: “Not when you’ve got it.”
Leslie is dismayed to find underdog Jett not all that different than her husband.
Jett: “I'm just as much a Texan as Bick Benedict is. I'm no wetback.”
Leslie: “You're very like Jordan in that respect. Attitude, everything.”
When Rink strikes it rich, Jett becomes top dog at last. The latter scenes require Dean to play Rink as a dissolute drunk, which some criticized as a caricature. Considering the flamboyant character, Dean does just fine. And it was while finishing up work on Giant back in Hollywood that James Dean died in show biz’ most famous car crash.
James Dean, in front of Reata, the Benedict ranch. This was actually a three-sided facade.

Giant was Warner’s biggest hit until Christopher Reeve’s Superman. The film received 10 Oscar nominations, including best actor for both Hudson and Dean. Giant confirmed Hudson’s leading man status; Dean’s nomination was posthumous. In fact, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came out after Dean’s demise. Taylor was overlooked by Oscar, despite getting excellent reviews and rising to top leading lady status. However, this was the same year that Marilyn Monroe was passed over for her praised performance in Bus Stop. Taylor could take consolation when she won the first of four consecutive nominations the following year for Raintree County.
There are so many memorable moments in Giant: Jett Rink hitting a gusher on his tiny property, rushing over to Reata covered in oil, to boast to the Benedicts; a military funeral for the first soldier from Reata, a Mexican boy Leslie once nursed to health; the showdown between middle-aged Bick and Jett; and finally the epic fist fight between Bick and a racist diner owner over not serving Mexicans.
Bick: “Look here, Sarge. I'd sure appreciate it if you were more polite to these people.”
Sarge: “You would, eh?”
Bick: “I'm Bick Benedict. Your neighbor, you might say.”
Sarge: “Does that give you special privileges?”
Bick: “The name Benedict's meant something to people around here for a long time.”
Sarge: “That there papoose down his name Benedict, too?”
Bick looks at his family, then turns back to Sarge: “Yes. Come to think of it, it is.”
The brawl is on, memorably set to The Yellow Rose of Texas, blasting from the jukebox. The excruciating match ends with Bick losing the fight, but winning wife Leslie’s admiration at last.
Leslie and Bick, happy at last, 25 years later!

I have seen Giant many times since childhood, but haven’t watched the film in a decade. The story and stars were as enthralling as ever, but I was amazed at how sharp the social commentary was still, after all these years. What’s even more amazing is Giant was made 60 years ago and we’re still fighting over the same issues today.
'Giant' ends with a close-up of the next generation of Benedicts.

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