“GIANT” (1956) Review

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“GIANT” (1956) Review

I have always been partial to family sagas. This has been the case since I was in my mid teens. Whether the story manifested in a novel, a television series or miniseries, or even a movie; I would eagerly delve into that particular story if I found it interesting. 

One of those family sagas that caught my interest at a young age was “GIANT”, the 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel about a wealthy Texas family. However, “GIANT” used to be something of an enigma to me. I found it difficult to appreciate the movie’s last hour, which was set in the 1940s and 50s. And I also found myself confused over which leading man to cheer for – Rock Hudson’s Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. or James Dean’s Jett Rink. Both characters were portrayed ambiguously. And being a simple-minded teenager, I found this a little difficult to accept. I needed clear cut heroes and villains to understand this story. Because of the ambiguous portrayals of the leading male characters and the story’s shift into the post-World War II era, I avoided “GIANT” for years. But recently, curiosity and maturity drove me to watch the movie again.

Produced and directed by George Stevens, “GIANT” began with the wealthy Bick traveling to Maryland to purchase a horse from a local landowner. During his trip, Bick meets and woos the landowner’s older daughter, Leslie Lynnton. They marry and head back to Bick’s large ranch Reata in Texas, where Leslie is forced to adapt to the semi-arid climate and rough culture of the state’s western region. More importantly, both Leslie and Bick are forced to realize that beneath their sexual chemistry and love for each other, they are two people with different social ideals and cultural backgrounds who barely know one another. And they would have to learn to overcome their differences to become a long-lasting couple. One last obstacle to their union turned out to be Jett Rink, a ranch hand who works for Bick’s older sister, Luz. The ambitious Jett not only hopes to get rich, but also falls secretly in love with Leslie. His feelings for the Maryland woman produces an unspoken rivalry between Jett and Bink – a rivalry that spills into business, when Jett strikes oil on the land given to him by Luz Benedict.

After my latest viewing of “GIANT”, my opinion of the movie had changed. I was finally mature enough to understand the ambiguity of the two leading male characters. I also learned to appreciate the movie’s post-World War II period, thanks to the performances of the leads – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. But not only did I enjoy how “GIANT”gave a bird’s eye, though somewhat exaggerated view of Texas, I admired how director George Stevens and screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat explored the cultural tensions that manifested throughout the state during the early 20th century – especially tensions between the state’s Anglos and those of Mexican descent. “GIANT” also focused on class tensions through the antagonistic relationship between Bick and Rink. This was especially apparent in the movie’s exploration of Texas’ gradual shift from cattle ranching to oil production as its leading industry. And Leslie became a voice for gender equality when she expressed her displeasure at society’s patriarchal order to her husband and his male circle of friends. These tensions served as either character developments or stagnation for our main characters. “GIANT” also explored the gradual change of the state’s leading industry from ranching to oil production

Some of my favorite moments in “GIANT” featured these developments and barriers for the main characters. Jett Rink’s discovery of oil on his land and his confrontation with Bick Benedict proved to be one of those memorable moments and should have served as a development in his character. Aware of the contempt Bick has conveyed toward him, it was easy to wallow in his triumph when he finally confronted the rancher. But Jett’s open leer of Leslie Benedict undermined his moment of triumph and proved to be a sign that newly founded wealth would not improve his character. Leslie’s travails as a bride in Texas was never more apparent than in the barbecue sequence that ended for her in a dead faint. But one of my favorite Leslie moments proved to be the famous scene in which she challenged the status quo of women keeping silent during social gatherings at Reata. The tension between the characters in the scene – especially Leslie and Bick – was deliciously obvious. The first half of “GIANT” did an excellent job of conveying Bick’s arrogance and self-worth as a member of the Benedict family, especially in his scenes with Bick. But my favorite Bick moments proved to be the Christmas Eve 1941 sequence in which audiences become fully aware that he is aging and not as self-confident as he used to be; and the famous roadside diner scene in which he gets into a fistfight with the diner’s bigoted owner and lose.

George Stevens had been wise to film most of the film in Marfa, Texas. Located in the high desert of West Texas, Marfa provided the perfect look for the movie’s setting. Cinematographer William C. Mellor, who had worked with Stevens on a few other films, did a first-rate job in utilizing Marfa’s flat terrain in giving the film its wide and sprawling look – especially for the Reata Ranch setting. Mellor’s photography also served well in certain scenes; including Leslie and Bick’s arrival in Texas, Luz’s brutal ride astride the Maryland horse purchased by her brother, the funeral of a World War II combatant (which brought tears to my eyes, by the way), and Jett striking oil. “GIANT” also benefited from Boris Leven’s production designs and Ralph S. Hurst’s set decorations. The work of both men aptly conveyed the changes at Reata, due to Leslie’s influence and the passage of time. I wish I could say something profound about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. But the problem is that I have no real memory of it. The best I can say is that Tiomkin’s score blended perfectly what was shown on screen. I have only one complaint and that was Tiomkin and Stevens’ use of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” during the famous diner fight scene and near the end of the movie. I found this use of the song rather bombastic.

If I have one major complaint, it is Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Mind you, some of them were colorful to look at, especially those costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker and the movie’s other actresses. But yes, I had a problem with Best’s costumes. I feel they had failed to reflect the time period in which most of the movie was set – especially those scenes set between the 1920s and 1941. For example, the following images of Elizabeth Taylor are set in the early 1920s:

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And the following two images featured actresses Fran Benedict and Elsa Cárdenas in two sequences set in December 1941:

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The blue dress with white trimming worn by Taylor looked as if it could have been worn in the early-to-mid 1950s. I could say the same about the costumes worn by Benedict and Cárdenas. Whereas the outfit worn by Taylor during the “Arrival at Reata” sequence looked as if it had been designed in the early 1930s. No wonder I that for years, I thought “GIANT”began in the early 1930s. It took the realization that Leslie and Bick’s twin children – Jordy and Judy – were in their late teens in the 1941 sequence. Best earned an Academy Award nomination for her work. And while I cannot deny that her costumes looked very attractive and colorful, I feel they were historically inaccurate and perhaps that Oscar nomination was not fully deserved.

What can I say about the acting in “GIANT”? Three of the cast members – Rock Hudson, James Dean and Mercedes McCambridge – earned Academy Award nominations. It seemed a pity that a few others failed to get one. Overall, the actors and actresses did a good job. Those who portrayed the movie’s Mexican-American characters did not fare well. Elsa Cárdenas gave a solid performance as Bick and Leslie’s daughter-in-law, Juanita Benedict. But Juana proved to be a slightly dull and ideal character with little depth. Actually, I could say the same about all of the Latino characters. I had expected Sal Mineo to be given an opportunity to display his acting skills as Angel Obregón II, a laborer’s son. Instead, Mineo barely spoke any lines and simply served as a symbol of young Latino manhood. Both Fran Benedict and Earl Holliman fared slightly better as Judy Benedict and her ranch hand husband, Bob Dave. Other than the pair’s desire to start a smaller ranch, the pair was able to overcome minimal characterizations to give solid performances. Only Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper were blessed with interesting characters as Jordy Benedict and younger sister Luz Benedict II. And both made the best of it. One of Baker’s finest moments occurred when Luz becomes silently aware that the man she loved – Jett Rink – was merely using her as some kind of substitution for her mother, whom he had remained in love. And Hopper did an excellent job of developing Jordy from a soft-spoken young man longing to reject his father’s overt patriarchal expectations in order to become a doctor, to the still soft-spoken young man with a hot temper and balls of steel.

Those characters who portrayed members of the older generation fared better. Jane Withers had a peach of a role in the character of Leslie’s best friend Vashti Snythe. Withers did an excellent job of conveying Vashti’s character from a very shy young woman to a bolder one, who became more adept at socializing with others. Chill Wills, whom I have never taken seriously as an actor before, gave a skillful and subtle performance as Bick’s uncle, Bawley Benedict. Mercedes McCambridge, on the other hand, was fantastic as Bick’s iron-willed sister, Luz Benedict. For the short period she was on screen, McCambridge nearly took my breath away in a performance that could have easily veered into caricature. I found myself wishing she had remained on the screen longer. At least she managed to earn an Oscar nomination.

James Dean also earned a nomination as the movie’s most enigmatic character, the laconic and very ambitious Jett Rink. I noticed that most critics have labeled Dean’s performance as the best in the movie. I doubt if I would agree. Mind you, he gave a superb performance, especially in the movie’s latter half as the older and corrupted Jett. But in the first half, he had this habit of keeping his hands busy, which deflected attention from his co-stars. And I found this annoying. Also, Stevens had a habit of posing him in these iconic shots that struck me as slightly artificial. The last actor to earn a nomination was Rock Hudson, who portrayed the family’s patriarch Jordan “Bick” Benedict. Although critics have been willing to compliment his performance, they tend to prefer his comedic roles. They are entitled to their opinion, but I truly believe that Hudson gave one of his best performances of his career in “GIANT”. Although I admired his portrayal of the ambiguous Bick, whose likability was marred by his bigotry; I found myself blown away by his portrayal of the middle-aged Bick. There were times when I forgot that he had been 29-30 years old at the time. Elizabeth Taylor was the only one of the three leads who did not receive an Academy nomination. Some have expressed no conflict with this oversight. I cannot agree with them. I feel she deserved a nomination just as much as her two male co-stars. Her Leslie Benedict proved to be the heart and soul of “GIANT”. And Taylor did such a superb job of maintaining this sprawling movie on her 23-24 year-old shoulders. She also skillfully conveyed Leslie’s journey from a “fish-out-of-water”, to a strong matriarch who proved to have a great influence not only on her family, but also her new community.

Looking back, I realized that I had been too young to appreciate “GIANT”, when I first saw it. The movie proved to be a lot better than I first believed. Although it was not perfect – what movie is – I now realize that George Stevens did a phenomenon job of translating Edna Ferber’s novel into this 201 minutes epic. And the amazing thing is that I was not bored one bit. The movie maintained my interest from start to finish, unlike the 1939 movie “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which bored me senseless during its last hour. And I cannot believe that this movie, along with a few others, lost the Best Picture prize to the likes of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”.

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