GIANT (1956)

  • Director: George Stevens
  • Writers: Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffant, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
  • Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Elsa Cárdenas, Earl Holliman, Robert Nichols, Paul Fix, Judith Evelyn, and Carolyn Craig
  • Accolades: 1997 AFI Top 100 list (#87), 1 Oscar (Best Director – George Stevens), 9 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – James Dean, Best Actor – Rock Hudson, Best Supporting Actress – Mercedes McCambridge, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction – Color, Best Costumes – Color)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla (library app), buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The title of Giant has no direct internal justification, but somehow seems entirely appropriate. This is a movie that takes place over the course of many decades in story time and that runs over three hours in actual time. It is also a movie with no shortage of grand, if often desolate, visuals. For me, it feels like size without actual substance. It is very clear that Warner Bros. thought it had sort of its own, sweeping story a la Gone With the Wind, about the travails of a family of rich people and their estate over several decades of history, if in a very different setting both physically and historically. But while I know a lot of people are very invested in the actual characters of Gone With the Wind, I have trouble imagining anyone investing in anyone over the course of Giant.

These days, this movie’s primary claim to fame tends to be as the final on-screen appearance of James Dean, who died in a car crash while the movie was in post-production. Dean plays the closest thing the movie has to a villain, Jett Rink, who starts the movie as a ranch hand with a massive chip on his shoulder and ends it as maybe the richest man in Texas, yet somehow more alone than ever. Dean plays his tight-lipped Texan with the same histrionics he displayed in Rebel Without a Cause (“You’re tearing me apaaart!”), which in that movie mostly works (he’s playing a moody teenager), but here makes him feel like he’s in a completely different movie from everyone else on screen. 

Elizabeth Taylor plays Leslie, a scion of eastern old money who immediately falls for Texas mega-rancher “Bick Benedict” (Rock Hudson) when he shows up at her family’s Maryland farm in some unidentified early 20th century year, marrying him and following him back to Texas, which she has never seen. She spends the early portions of the movie causing culture shock, which includes being friendly to the Mexican ranch workers. The movie then follows the half-million-acre “Reata” ranch through World War II and the takeover of the oil business from ranching, as Leslie and Bick have three kids. Only one of them is a son, and much to Bick’s great dismay that son (played as an adult by a young Dennis Hopper) decides to become a doctor instead of following him into the oil business, then marries a Mexican girl (Elsa Cárdenas). 

Your tolerance for this movie may vary if you have a higher regard for Texan parochial nonsense than I generally do (full disclosure, I was born in Texas but my family moved away when I was 1, so am not a Texan by any stretch of the imagination). I am told it is particularly beloved of Texans despite being, in the end, fairly critical of the state and its culture. One of the main themes is the racism displayed by many of the characters against the Mexicans, especially Bick. He seemingly redeems himself in the end (one sequence very late in the movie has him getting into a way overlong fistfight with a diner owner after he tries to kick out another table of Mexican patrons), but one gets the sense that he never would have learned anything if he didn’t end up, over his strenuous objections, with a brown grandchild. Nor does he seem particularly into Leslie, as he spends most of the movie arguing with her. The two of them even seem to sleep in separate beds.

That Taylor and Dean seem to have much better chemistry does actually work into the movie’s hands, given that if he doesn’t have this great unrequited thing for her the general sweep of the movie doesn’t work nearly as well. That Rock Hudson does not seem very into Elizabeth Taylor may not, in fact, constitute a great feat of acting, as his homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood throughout much of his career. Despite this, he had a long career as a romantic lead, including in a long series of comedies opposite Doris Day. Unfortunately, he would become the first national celebrity to both publicly announce an AIDS diagnosis and to die from the disease in the 1980s.

If Giant’s over-the-top Texas silliness seems familiar to some, particularly in some of the later sequences where Jett is a super-rich oil mogul, this may be because it is thought to have been the primary inspiration for the popular TV series Dallas. That show even has an oil-rich villain with the initials “J.R.” So if you like that, this might be worth your time. But let me emphasize, it’s really long, and really from my perspective has very little to recommend it.

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