Jordon Benedict meets Leslie in Maryland. He has come East to buy a stallion; but when he returns to his ranch in Texas he takes home a bride! Texas won’t know what hit it, as Leslie breaks down social barriers, the War looms and Big Oil turns ‘cow country’ upside down.
Oscar winner: Best Director: George Stevens
Nominated for 10 Oscars; including Best Picture
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A sprawling saga, based on Edna Ferber’s novel: ‘Giant’ follows a Texas family over three decades, in the middle of the American Century: with iconic performances by three screen legends.
Elizabeth Taylor; Rock Hudson; James Dean – it doesn’t get much better than this. As a kid growing up in the Sixties, with three American television stations, one Canadian, the highlight of the year was ‘The Wizard of Oz’, perhaps ‘Ben Hur’, and if you were lucky: ‘Giant’. (‘Gone With The Wind’ was still drawing audiences to the movie theatres until the early Seventies)
Jordon ‘Bic’ Benedict (Hudson) finds himself in Maryland shopping for a stallion. He meets a doctor and his family and falls for daughter, Leslie (Taylor). He spirits her home to Texas as his bride. Home is ‘Rieta’, a cattle ranch of half a million acres. They live in a large mansion set on a dusty plain with not a blade of grass in sight. His sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) lives with them as does an uncle and a few servants.
It’s a patriarchal world and set in its ways. Leslie sets out to change that: she treats her Mexican servants with too much respect, for Bic’s taste. She brings improved health care to their village. She butts heads with Luz over the running of the house. It causes a strain in the marriage. The dramatic flux between the liberal and the conservative spirits, in Leslie and Bic’s marriage and Texas as a whole, is a dominant thread in the story. Texas itself is a major theme -- Big Oil is changing its landscape and the Second World War, its people.
Luz is as tough as hardtack; but she has a soft spot for Jett Rink (Dean), a lowly cowpuncher. She champions Jett; even though Bic can’t stand him. When Luz dies in an accident Bic tries to buy him off and be rid of him. (They have a wonderful dynamic; but where there’s smoke there’s fire: Dean and Hudson didn’t care for each other.) Luz leaves Jett a small piece of land in the heart of Rieta and Jett, to the consternation of all, decides to keep it.
In a twist of fate Rink strikes oil on his dirt patch. The rise of Jett Rink from cowpoke to oil tycoon is an exciting tale. But Jett has a flaw: he seems to be Capitalism personified and without restraint. Without code or kin the money he generates consumes him. (Ferber based Rink on a real life character she met in Texas in the fifties.)
A good portion of the latter half of ‘Giant’ concerns the next generation. It’s anticlimactic; there isn’t a Hudson or Taylor among them. The most compelling of the new crop is Carroll Baker who plays Luz Benedict the second. She forms a crush on Jett Rink, but even he is a shell of his former self. (A young Dennis Hopper as Jordon’s son is interesting, if only for his line: “Go easy on the bourbon, Dad.” Famous for his edgy lifestyle and over the top roles in films such as ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ – it may be the last time he uttered such a thought.)
It’s impossible to exaggerate the beauty of the two stars: Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. For over a decade Taylor was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world. Still it’s all eye candy without talent and they are both supremely talented. Hudson was nominated for an Oscar for this role. Taylor went on to win two best actress Oscars: for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?’ and for ‘Butterfield 8’.
As the filming of ‘Giant’ came to an end James Dean died in a car crash, aged 24. He never saw its release. One long speech had to be dubbed by another actor. Nor could Dean know that he would be nominated for two Oscars – one for ‘Giant’ and one for ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. Quotes from Elia Kazan and Brando suggest that had he lived he wouldn’t have been able to sustain such brilliance: he hadn’t the training. For me this is silly. Fame and wealth can afford acting lessons. Not all the lessons in the world can produce acting genius – it is a gift -- a gift that Dean shares with us in three rare films. (‘East Of Eden’ being his first.) It’s difficult to name another actor who accomplished so much in such a short time.
The mood of the film relies to a degree on a stock set of beliefs, widely held in the fifties. We might call them ‘family values’. Times may change, we are told, but Leslie and Jordon are married and wealthy and child bearing and so they are generally good. Luz is wealthy and hard working, but she is alone. Under the circumstances she does the only proper thing: she rides off on a horse and breaks her neck. Jett Rink is poor and alone and malcontent. He strikes it rich; but he is still alone, and so he must be punished -- he is.
It all made perfect sense to me as a child. Today, in my post-nuclear mindscape, I’m not so sure. The assumption that watching Ma and Pa grow grey while their children turn the agenda is compelling stuff strains – this isn’t ‘us’ anymore. Still ‘Giant’ is so true and so good on so many levels...we may change: it continually fascinates in one way or another...
At present I revel in its three stars: at the peak of their considerable charm and power. For many reasons: its sweeping grandeur -- not least it’s early championing of the Women’s and Civil Rights movements -- ‘Giant’ is an enduring treasure.