Giant August 18, 2016
Giant, from 1956, really is giant. It spans three decades; critiques the societal misgivings of aristocracy, gender inequality, and racial injustice with an emotional cry; and clocks at an astonishing 197 minutes. It also stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, giants themselves, and is superlatively directed by George Stevens, a titan of a filmmaker with such American classics as 1951’s A Place in the Sun and 1953’s Shane serving as heavyweights within his extensive, impressive filmography. The budget is big and the scope is great — the stakes are high and the drive is even higher. Giant is not just a movie: it’s also a sweltering statement of an epic, lavish, intellectual, challenging, and, best of all, extraordinarily entertaining.
At Giant’s front is the Benedict family, a powerful, oil-rich Texas clan that holds prolific authority over the region. Hudson and Taylor are Bick and Leslie, the heads of the lineage; Dean, in his final performance, is Jett Rink, a neighboring handyman who eventually finds substantial wealth himself after he strikes oil, too.
Following the trio’s prominent struggles and successes from the 1920s until the mid-1950s, Giant spends considerable time forging an intimacy oftentimes missing from grand-scale epics of the same sort. Admiring of visual grandeur but never resorting to it for its greatness, character development is the film’s finest attribute. Watching voyeuristically as Bick grows from hardened conservative to generally open-minded patriarch, as Leslie transitions from spoiled socialite to feministic spitfire, as Jett goes from quiet hopeful to miserable tycoon, is more thrilling than any stretch of spectacle could ever be.
Giant is an epic of human existence; its characterizations, so nuanced and so terrifically performed by its actors, are compellingly drawn — for the most part, the film finds most of its electricity through the studying of Bick, Leslie, and Jett alone, only later transferring some of its attention onto the next generation of Benedicts (represented by Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, and Fran Bennett). Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat’s screenplay iridescently brings Edna Ferber’s characters to life, effectually illustrating them as insecure but bold people as easily able to shift their loyalties and change their ideals over the years as much as the next person. They don’t so much seem to be figments of the cinematic imagination as they do naturalistic individuals we scrupulously care about in ways we aren’t much accustomed do when filmgoing.
As Bick, Hudson is stern and rigid, undergoing the difficult task of fleshing out a man who’d possibly be hateful if his moral and ethical beliefs were unchanging. But, influenced by his compassionate wife, we vividly see a quasi tyrant transform into a weathered, objective millionaire, best exemplified through the way he’s introduced in Giant as a prejudiced man with a fondness for calling his Mexican workers “wetbacks,” only to, in the last act of the film, climactically get in a fist fight with the owner of a diner after his son’s native wife is discriminated against. The film marked for the first and last time in which Hudson, mostly known as a romantic lead frequently paired alongside Doris Day, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work is sublime, a rare personification of a hero of the celluloid nursing deep-seated vulnerability.
Taylor, in the midst of her reign as the most famous woman in the world, is comparably excellent; her Leslie is the glue that keeps Giant’s ambition held together. When Hudson’s a set-in-his-ways entrepreneur, and when Dean’s a slinky would-be bigwig whose intentions aren’t always clear, Taylor is fierce and solicitous, never to be satisfied as a rich man’s trophy. Most memorable is a monologue whereby she busts the balls of a grouping of men talking politics — after being reminded that the topic at hand is men’s stuff, not a subject a woman could possibly be interested in, she ruptures and tells her sexist critics off. Leslie disappointingly takes on the role of a supporting character after the movie nears its final act, but Taylor’s performance, which garnered her critical attention that had mostly eluded her until 1956, is incendiary.
But perhaps the most fascinating character of Giant is Jett Rink, magnificently played by Dean. Though he died just two weeks after shooting wrapped, never to behold the triumph of his characterization himself, the film solidifies his versatility, proving that he could embody more types than the teenage rebels he so luminously portrayed in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden.
Rink is the most indefinable character of the film. His fate is never as much of a given as the Benedicts, and his true motivations are never much apparent until he redefines himself altogether. His alteration from humble ranch hand to miserable magnate is engrossing, all the more mesmerizing because there’s a sense that he was mysteriously saved from his own destiny and was instead given the future of another. Rink’s torment — having much to do with an unrequited love for Leslie — is phenomenally realized by Dean.
But where its performances overwhelm in their glory, Giant is a masterpiece saddled only by the clumsiness of its dealings with racial inequity. While Guiol and Moffat supply cogent scenes slamming the classist and racist normalities of ‘50s Texas society, Stevens, who, in other respects, directs the film without issue, insipidly (and ironically) combines white actors in brownface and Latino actors in noticeably dark makeup for Giant’s Mexican characters. (Sal Mineo, who appears in a minor role as a housekeeper’s son, for instance, looks three shades darker than usual.) It’s a pitiful flaw in a film that otherwise is intelligent in its many depictions of social and cultural imbalance.
But Giant is, nevertheless, still sensational six decades later. A favorite of both the critics and the public — it was nominated for ten Oscars, with Stevens winning for Best Director — its hypnotic hold over the audience hasn’t changed. This is capacious, prepossessing filmmaking with a lot on its mind and a lot in its heart. It's a tour de force. A