I had seen Giant before I watched it for my blog, but only once. I was probably seventeen, and while I was seriously underwhemed with the way the stars were aged, I liked the movie overall. But now that I’m older and more analytical (and possibly more cynical), I’m not as impressed with it as I once was.
So what’s the story? Texas rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr. has come to Maryland to buy a stallion to improve his breeding stock. There he meets Leslie, a lovely and spirited society girl. After talking to each other for less than ten minutes, they are deeply in love. They marry and go back to Reata, Jordan’s ranch in dry, dusty Texas. They spend the next 25 years adjusting not only to each other, but to the changing world around them.
The Good: Perhaps because of his early death, James Dean still haunts pop culture. Before I actually saw him in anything, I thought people were overreacting a bit when they talked about how a great young actor was lost. But he really was that good. He brings a pathos to Jett Rink, a low-class ranch hand who strikes oil. Without James Dean, Jett would have been a slightly ridiculous character, but James Dean allows us to see his motivations, his dreams and desires. He makes him human. James Dean died before the filming of Giant was completed, but he left his mark on the film and on film history.
Three supporting actors really stood out. Mercedes McCambridge is Luz Benedict, Jordan’s crusty older sister. She loves Reata more than anything and can do anything a man can do on the ranch. (SPOILER ALERT)Her death, which happens so conveniently soon after Leslie comes to Texas, is really quite touching. Chill Wills plays Uncle Bawley, a kindly older gentleman who helps Leslie understand Texas and the Benedict children understand life. Jordan Benedict III is played by Dennis Hopper in what must have been one of his first big movie roles. Jordy is a rather quiet young man, but he is deeply passionate below the surface. It’s a very fine performance.
The Bad: I really enjoyed the first half of Giant. Up until the point where Jett finds his oil, it’s tight and focused. After that, it feels looser and more meandering. It doesn’t feel like it has a central focus. Jordan and Leslie and their relationship aren’t as important as they were, but nothing steps up to fill that vacuum. I don’t know if that’s how it is in the novel that Giant is based on, but it made the second half feel less meaningful and somewhat disconnected from the first half.
Giant must begin sometime in the 1920s since the movie spans 25 or 30 years, but you can’t really tell from the costume design. Elizabeth Taylor’s clothes are waaaay too 1950s-fashionable for the 1920s. The other costumes are not as bad. I guess it was decided that it wouldn’t do to have Elizabeth Taylor wearing thirty-year-old fashions. But I want Luz II’s white formal. It’s gorgeous.
The Ugly: The makeup in this movie is so bad that I have been using it as my standard of bad makeup for fifteen years. Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean are “aged” thirty years by wearing grey wigs. That’s about it. That makes it hard to believe that Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson are parents with grown children, let alone grandparents. It’s a little bit silly.
The thing I hated most about this movie is Leslie. She doesn’t grow or change at all in the course of the movie, even though she’s supposed to be about eighteen when she marries Jordan. She swoops in from Maryland and teaches all the ignorant, backward Texans what is acceptable in life. Yes, the Texans do have some deplorable attitudes, but the fact that Leslie is the only enlightened one is very grating. How exactly did a rich doctor’s daughter have so much life experience at eighteen that she has so much wisdom? It’s hard to watch a three-hour movie with a paragon as the main character. It makes it hard to suspend your disbelief.
Oscars Won: Best director.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (James Dean); best actor in a leading role (Rock Hudson); best actress in a supporting role (Mercedes McCambridge); best writing, best screenplay – adapted; best art direction-set direction, color; best costume design, color; best film editing; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.