Giant (1956) Directed by George Stevens
I think I should discuss Elizabeth Taylor now because she is amazing. She has acted in many movies that we have reviewed here, but I have failed to mention her in any meaningful way. Possibly her presence leaves such an impression on me that I dare not go there. Whether she is playing Cleopatra, the mad girl in Suddenly Last Summer or the rebellious rich wife in Giant, she is always mostly Elizabeth Taylor – and that's the attraction.
There is something importantly different about Taylor's on-screen presence compared to Marilyn Monroe's sensuality (I am making this comparison because to me, there is also something similar). My feeling is it's in the consciousness of the actor. Taylor has a perfectly beautiful face with glittering eyes, a curvy sensual body surrounded by an air of playful but intelligent emotion. Everything about her seems intentional, her emotions easily available to her expression, her sensuality in her conscious use. The impact and power are striking. Taylor looks divine, but her characters usually also seem like people with dirt in their hands, opinions in their heads – they live.
In other words, Elizabeth Taylor is an actress with scope. In Giant she plays Leslie. We see her from the moment she falls in love with her husband Bick (a rich Texas landowner) and follow her through her life until her children have grown up (and there is nothing more to say?). The film attempts to cover such a long period of time that somewhere along the line we lose the focus on character development, but in the first half of the film Taylor is truly in the center of the story. She questions gender roles and the racist traditions of her new home state, she loves her husband but is not afraid to disagree and disobey him. But Leslie is a confusing character, her rebellion seems to lead to nowhere specific during the course of the film. I think that her weakness comes from an unsatisfying script.
I guess I should mention James Dean too. There, I just did. He was there – or was he?
I've always found it fascinating that for many years the upper classes or the rich would often be the main protagonists in the movies. And of course, often in this scenario, you'll find a poor character who makes it rich and becomes the bad guy. What is that feeling in us that wants to root for or be remotely interested in the privileged? Is it to gaze on what we can't have, or is it to dream? Royalty at one stage seemed to be the role models of the day. Giant was one of the last pictures of this type.
Giant is the story of a filthy rich Texan family, covering many years and generations. The Benedict family come across as spoiled, racist, ignorant and yes, stupid, stupid stupid. Rock Hudson plays 'Bick' Benedict (not as good as his roles for Douglas Sirk) who is a rancher who owns half a million acres. Bick goes to buy a horse in Washington and comes back with the stallion and Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie) as his wife. She's smart and independent (and impossibly rich), he's a big Texan Dumbo. We then follow their relationship and their growing family over many years. Bick and Leslie are forever at loggerheads but still in love despite their differences. The imperialist arrogance simply drips of the screen. So, this film's attitudes and portrayal of racism is pretty dated. But despite the obnoxious vulgarity, Giant is a lumbering classic.
Nowadays the picture is probably remembered for being James Dean's last film (he died on the day he finished shooting his last scene). Dean plays Jett Rink, a poor cowhand who strikes it rich with oil and becomes a notorious playboy, and Bick's greatest enemy. Dean is pretty rubbish as Rink, especially when portraying him as an old washed up alcoholic. But his screen presence alone and his scenes with Taylor add the energy that dispels some of the lethargy elsewhere. He also looks incredible in the early scenes, pure sexual magnetism. Mind you, his Texan drawl is terrible (you might need the sub titles for his lines!)
So Giant despite its many faults, is one of the last credible American epic Westerns. Stevens' picture looks amazing, Taylor is up to the task, great cameos from a young Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo insert quality. It's a forerunner of Dallas, a neighbor to Gone With The Wind. Even recent pictures like There Will Be Blood owe something to Giant. This hulk of a dinosaur picture can still hold you in its grasp. As to why? I'm not sure.