Giant: Revisiting George Stevens Epic, Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean in his Last Role

Made as an epic, budgeted at $5 million, Giant was planned as the “Big Film of the Year,” the one to beat at Oscar time. However, though nominated for the largest (ten) number of Oscars in 1956, including Best Picture, “Giant” won only one, for director George Stevens. The big winner was the frivolous and campy adventure, Around the World in 80 Days, which included numerous cameo appearances by stars.
As adapted to the screen, Edna Ferber’s saga of a Texas family life and the conflict between cattlemen and oil tycoons presented a none-too-flattering portrait of one wealthy Texas family in the years when the cattle barons were being overtaken by the oil tycoons

giant_posterSynonymous with power and wealth, oil changed entirely the landscape and way of life of Texas and its people.  “Giant” shows the cataclysmic effects of the oil discovery on everyone who came into contact with it.

 

Three of the film’s distinguished performers received Oscar nominations: James Dean and Rock Hudson, both as Best Actors, and Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress, as Luz Benedict, a bitter old maid (and by today’s standards a lesbian).

Giving one of his best performances, Rock Hudson plays Bick Benedict, a moneyed cattle baron married to a spoiled but beautiful Virginian, Leslie, played by Elizabeth Taylor, also in top form.  This was the turning point in the career of Taylor as a mature actress: In the next four years, she would earn four consecutive Oscar nominations, winning her first Oscar for “Butterfield 8,” in 1960.

James Dean was cast as Jett Rink, the new, drunken oil king, a sullen farmhand whose lifestyle undergoes a dramatic change after he discovers oil on his land and becomes a millionaire. “Giant” is Dean’s last picture before the car crash that took his life.

giant_5_taylorSome modern film critics consider “Giant” to be a bloated, sprawling saga, which is more impressive in ambition than execution, though, they all agree that the acting is good and that the scenes between James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor generate a lot of heat.

Going beyond its relative artistic merits, “Giant” is also notable for disclosing ideological cracks in the American Dream: Racism and the melting pot mythology and women’s anxieties about their allotted, passive roles by dominant culture.

Dennis Hopper marries a Mexican-American, who is denied service at a beauty parol that belongs toJames Dean, and later on they are kicked out of a diner by its racist owner, leading to a climactic fistfight between Hudson and the owner.

This was James Dean‘s last role in his very short career. By the time the film was released, he was dead, but the Academy still nominated him for the Best Actor Oscar posthumously.

Detailed Plot

giant_4_taylor_hudsonJett Rink (James Dean), who works for Luz, hopes to find his fortune by leaving Texas; he is also secretly in love with Leslie. When riding Leslie’s beloved horse, War Winds, Luz expresses her hostility by cruelly digging in her spurs. Luz dies after War Winds bucks her off. In her will, Jett is bequeathed land on the Benedict ranch. Bick tries to buy back the land, but Jett refuses to sell. Jett names his land Little Reata.  Leslie and Bick have twins, Jordan “Jordy” Benedict III (Dennis Hopper) and Judy Benedict (Fran Bennett), and later have a daughter, Benedict II (Carroll Baker).

When Jett discovers traces of oil in a footprint of Leslie’s, he drills and hits a gusher. All excited, and drenched in oil, he drives to the Benedict front yard and proudly proclaims that he will be richer than the Benedicts. Jett’s oil drilling company prospers, but determined to continue to be a cattle rancher like his forefathers, Bick rejects offers to drill for oil on Reata.

giant_3_deanTensions in Bick’s and Leslie’s household revolve around sexual politics, what constitutes good education, and the future of their children.  Initially, Bick insists that Jordy succeed him and run the ranch, as his father and grandfather did before him, but Jordy wants to become a doctor.

There is also tension between mother and daughter: Leslie wants Judy to attend finishing school in Switzerland, but Judy loves the ranch and wants to study animals at Texas Tech.  Ultimately, both children pursue successfully their own ambitions and dreams, and their parents have to consent.

giant_2_taylor_deanWhen WWII breaks out, Jett tries to persuade Bick to allow oil production on his land to help the war effort. Realizing that his children will not take over the ranch, Bick agrees. Both Bick and Jett show signs of a drinking problem.  Luz II, now in her teens, starts flirting with Jett. Once oil production starts on the ranch, the wealthy Benedict family becomes even wealthier, manifest in their new swimming pool.

After the War, the Benedict-Rink rivalry continues, coming to a head when the Benedicts discover that Luz II and the much older Jett have been dating. At a party given by Jett in his honor at Jett’s hotel, Jordy’s Mexican-American wife, Juana (Elsa Cárdenas), is racially insulted by hotel staff. An irate Jordy tries to start a fight with Jett. Jett’s goons hold Jordy, Jett punches him repeatedly, then has Jordy thrown out. Fed up, Bick challenges Jett to a fight. Drunk and almost incoherent, Jett leads the way to a wine storage room. Seeing that Jett is in no state to defend himself, Bick lowers his fists, “You’re not even worth hitting. You’re all through,” then topples Jett’s wine cellar shelves.

giant_1_taylor_deanIn the film’s weakest (or most indulgent) scene, Jett, completely drunk, takes his seat of honor then passes out on the table.  All the guests are forced to leave. Later, Luz II observes how he recovers from his drunken stupor, talking to an empty room, and disclosing that his sexual interest in her was an attempt to vicariously possess her more allurig mother.

The Benedicts drive down a back road and stop at a diner, where the racist owner Sarge (Mickey Simpson) insults Juana and son Jordon VI. When Sarge threatens to kick out an old Mexican man, Bick fights and loses, but his family is proud of his standing up. Back at the ranch, Bick and Leslie watch their multiracial grandchildren and reflect on their life.

Reaffirming their love and deep bond, Leslie tells Bick that she respects his new understanding of people who are vastly different from himself.

Oscar Nominations: 10

Picture, produced by George Stevens and Henry Ginsberg
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay (Adapted): Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat
Actor: James Dean
Actor: Rock Hudson
Supporting Actress: Mercedes McCambridge
Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Boris Leven; Ralph S. Hurst
Costume Design (Color): Moss Mabry, Marjorie Best
Scoring of Dramatic/Comedy: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: William Hornbeck, Philip W. Anderson, and Fred Bohanan

Oscar Awards: 1

Director

Oscar Context

In 1956, Giant competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Around the World in 80 Days, which won, the Western family drama Friendly Persuasion, the musical “The King and I,” and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.

Inexplicably, “Giant” was the big Oscar loser: The top winner “Around the World in 80 Days” also received the Adapted Screenplay Award.

“The King and I” won Oscars for Best Actor (Yul Brynner), Art Direction, and Costume Design.  It is plausible that Dean and Hudson, nominated in the same category, cancelled themselves out, thus slitting the vote.

The Supporting Actress Oscar went to Dorothy Malone for the Douglas Sirk melodrama, “Written on the Wind.”

Credits
Warner Production and Release
Running time: 301 Minutes

Cast

Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor)
Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson)
Jett Rink (James Dean)
Luz Benedict II (Carroll Baker)
Vashti Snythe (Jane Withers)
Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills)
Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge)
Angel Obregon II (Sal Mineo)
Jordan Benedict II (Dennis Hopper)
Mrs. Horace Lynnton (Judith Evelyn)