Giant – produced and directed by George Stevens. An upper class girl from Maryland moves to her Texas husband’s huge ranch and confronts his way of thinking. 3 hours and 21 minutes Color 1956.
Two elements destroy the picture. The first is that Rock Hudson as Jordan Benedict is miscast. He has no heterosexual energy coming off of him and the role needs it. Internally Hudson is limp, both in his craft and as a male temperament. Although externally he has presence and looks, if you like them, and he is well directed scene by scene, which carries him through the picture, and although he does as good a job as he can, there is nothing sexual coming off of him towards Elizabeth Taylor who plays his mate, and insofar as the picture is the story of this relationship, the picture fails. Hudson in real life had a sense of humor but as an actor, seems to have none, which is why Tony Randall was brought into his comedies. This means that he is never able to see his character as funny, peculiar, ridiculous, to be taken with a grain of salt at certain times, the sort of humorous self-knowledge that Cagney brought to a character. Hudson’s Benedict has no point-of-view, only a bias. All this means that the part remains a role and never becomes a character. And it also means that the relationship must be created by Taylor alone, who, of course, has considerable humor, a mischief, a sense of fun, a knowing flirtatiousness, a firmness of mind and principle, generosity, will, kindness, grace, a confident bad temper, and tact. Although the most beautiful woman in the world, as she does in other films, she also goes after her man and lands him. She loves animals and feels strongly for the underdog. She has both the allure of sexual gusto and motherliness to offer. She has all this naturally, which is to say she has everything to make her part work, and she is simply perfectly endowed for the role. And she has one other gift, for she is that rare thing, a true Romantic Actress. (Think of young Vivien Leigh as another.) She is so good in the part, she forces you simply by loyalty to her vantage point on him to believe in the marriage itself. But in fact because of Hudson it is hollow. And, at any rate, it is not her story that is being told, but his. He is one whose challenge it is to change both in his marriage and in his life. Much as we admire the Taylor character throughout, our focus must be on that. The change involves Hudson’s character eventually coming to accept three stranger Mexican-Americans as human beings. Until that becomes evident, we are treated to what may be the best performance Elizabeth Taylor ever gave on film – by which I mean the performance most ideally, fully, and completely suited to her instrument as a mature actress – just watch her carefully in the doorway scene at the marriage of her sister. Of course, the difficulty with watching Elizabeth Taylor as an actress is that her beauty is a spotlight so blinding that it hypnotizes us out of realizing what a marvelous actress she is. In both halves of the movie, it is clear at every moment that the picture is unthinkable without her. For if you think of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly who were both considered ahead of her for the role, you can see that they could never have played the second half of the film, because they would not know how to allow Leslie be older. Maturity was never their line. It is also easy to overlook Elizabeth Taylor’s talent because she is physically so composed. She is not an eccentric actress, she is a concentric one, so much so that when she gestures she appears to gesticulate. In her stillness of composure and her certainty of her effects, it is also easy to overlook her talent when placed against actors trained by the Method into physical volatility, such as Carroll Baker and James Dean, who are always moving, stewing, twitching, fingering a prop. In this way Taylor herself is marginalized. They are wonderful actors. Baker, who was older than Taylor who played her mother, is unerring as a defiant, saucy teen-ager. But in the second half, one senses one is being presented with the structure of a false front and that we have gone around the back of the facade of Riata itself and are looking at the bare framework of a put-up-job. The script becomes too spare and obvious, defying Stevens’ renown for letting the audience rise to the occasion and do its own work. Mercedes McCambridge with her voice like an automobile accident plays Hudson’s jealous sister, and dies early, but generally everyone but Hudson is marginalized. All the Mexican-Americans are wallpapered. Other actors emerge from adjoining rooms, say a few lines, and return. Chill Wills is missing a scene between himself and Jane Withers, who creates a wonderful arc from a shy plump girl with a crush on Hudson to a loud Texan matron taking over a ballroom by shaking her white fox fur stole. She is also never given a scene. The wife of Dennis Hopper is sadly miscast and sets one’s teeth on edge by being allowed to play a Goodness Madonna, and Sal Mineo appears without our opportunity to understand him as a character at all, and the same is certainly true of Alexander Scourby who plays his Mexican-American grandfather. All these remain unexamined, unexamined not in terms of exposition (which they do not need) but in dramatic scenes sufficient to give them and the story life. Yes, in the second half, it becomes grievously apparent that there is a problem with the script, when even the character of Jett Rink is marginalized, given insufficient screen time. In the first half, Jett Rink, played to a fair-thee-well by James Dean, gives you a picture of the character work he might have done had he lived. For he ruthlessly creates a piece of prison-trash – mean-spirited, resentful, disloyal, cowardly, vicious, and whining. But Dean’s performance, in the second half of the film, as he knew, does not stand up. A bum in vicuna, a dull, sly, nasty drunk, consumed with self-pity in a ceaseless tirade against those who have more than he has and whom he claims have wronged him and wrested him of his rights, he is just the same as he was when he was 20. So he is also best in his pre-intermission scenes, particularly because the make-up is bad after that, when the three stars simply add radiator paint to their hair to be fifty. Actually as the younger Jett, he seems older than the older one, but what Dean needed was not to repeat his physicalization of the younger Jett, which he does, but to give the character polish, take away the slouch, the slyness, the shy little boy, the weasel. After all, we know this is a man bent on self-improvement, on losing his Texas accent, on night-school. Dean needed to give Tycoon Rink a suavity with no loopholes but one, his continued envy of the Benedict family. Anyhow, Dean didn’t think of it and maybe couldn’t have played it if he had thought of it. So his babyish playing of the scene between him and Carroll Baker doesn’t quite come alive on his part, for he plays it as a toddler tugging a female’s skirts to be cute. So, as with the others, the Dean character is set aside as well. For after the intermission, the film’s aesthetic collapses into polemic. This means that each character now Stands For Something, that Something being A Predictable Outcome. The dialogue exchanges become formulaic to that end. They lack personal flavor, and the comedy with which the second half begins doesn’t play, well directed filmicly as it is, because, although Taylor can remain in the moment with these scenes and make her character fully funny, Hudson does not have the talent to give the character the intelligence that would have made him attractive to us or the humor that would have made him see Jordan Benedict as maybe dumb or even silly in such scenes. Nothing really works richly, even though pretty much everything is convincingly played. The idea that Jordan Junior, played by Dennis Hopper, would have sought out Jett Rink in the middle of a banquet to sock him in the kisser for a racial insult to his wife is preposterous. He wouldn’t have done it there. He wouldn’t have done it at all, because he had never met Jett Rink and would have known him only in terms of his father’s prejudice against him. He also would have known not to let his wife go to the hotel beauty parlor to begin with, since by this time, he and she would have expected this prejudice to exist in public places in Texas. This leads to a fistfight in a wine cellar between Rink, who is flaccidly drunk, and Hudson, who is too flaccid inside himself to hit Rink, who in any case is too small for his weight class. The whole thing ends up with a theatrical gesticulation of some wine shelves being knocked over. Fistfights and failed comedy and polemic is the deterioration of the second half of Giant. Everything is sidelined for a preachment. And, yet, for a three-and-a-half hour film to come out at the end to be a polemic against prejudice is meritorious and had a great effect at the time, for sure. That it should be a prejudice against Mexican-Americans gave it, at the time, a force greater because more general than a specific prejudice against Jews or Negros. But I don’t think it is honest. For what Stevens felt in Dachau in 1945 when he saw and filmed the corpses was not “prejudice.” What he felt was horror. But the horror of prejudice we are never given in Giant. We see only a man, Benedict, being prejudiced. We never see prejudice from the vantage point of those who are victims of it. We never see inside a single Mexican-American. We never see the bodies pile up in their souls as they are dismissed and marginalized. For, of course, Stevens himself has marginalized them in his film. Even the fight in the café is not about the three old helpless Mexican people. It is only and always about Benedict, and even Taylor’s coda about him being her hero, and that it being all he ever really wanted to be, has nothing to do with prejudice. Taylor is so marvelous doing the scene that you cannot but go for it, but the final image of the black calf and the white sheep and the dark toddler and the gringo toddler in the floor crib is so crude as to be self-cancelling. Yes, you believe Taylor’s maturity in marriage, and her evenhandedness. It’s in the tone of her voice because it’s in her nature. But in Giant we are told to concern ourselves not where tolerance is, but where it is not, and its theme peters out in the over-broad gesture of it script, becomes lost in spaciousness, breadth of land, spectacle of vulgar riches, and the length of the film itself. Apart from Carroll Baker, no one but Taylor seems absolutely right for their roles – and the film is not about her. She is essentially a leading woman here, in a Myrna Loy part. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score lumbers along as the film lumbers along. William Mellor filmed it beautifully. But it is as empty as the ‘50s. It seems that Stevens has abandoned depth of character and dramatic situation for vastness of morality play on the one hand and for the minutiae of preparation before and the minutiae of editing afterwards on the other. There is not enough filling in the sandwich. It is as though actors and drama were now mere tools of his vision. But actors are not tools. Indeed, they are not even movie stars, even when they are Elizabeth Taylor. No. Inside a movie they are characters, or they’d better be and they’d better be kept so. The film was enormously popular, the top grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers. The public loved it and still does. The ‘50s were a spendthrift age, an age of tasteless excess. Giant is the fins on its Cadillac. But Stevens did direct it. So it also is a Cadillac.