Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama by taking a look at the 1956 best picture nominee, Giant.
Giant is a film about my home state of Texas. Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) goes to Maryland to buy a horse and ends up returning to Texas with a bride, socialite Lesley Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor). At first, Lesley struggles to adapt to the harsh and hot Texas landscape. Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) takes an instant dislike to Lesley and Bick is annoyed by Lesley’s concern over the living conditions of the Mexicans that work on Bick’s ranch. It sometimes seems like the only person who appreciates Lesley is Jett Rink (James Dean), an ambitious ranch hand who secretly loves her and who is planning on becoming a rich man. That’s exactly what happens when oil is found on the land around Bick’s ranch. While Bick stubbornly clings to the past, oilman Jett represents both the future of Texas and the nation. Meanwhile, Bick and Lesley’s son (played by a very young Dennis Hopper) challenges his father’s casual bigotry when he falls in love with a Mexican girl.
Giant is appropriately named because it is a huge film. Clocking in at 201 minutes, Giant tells a story that spans several decades and features a big cast that is full of familiar faces, all struggling for their chance to somehow stand out from everyone else around them. Even the film’s wonderful panoramic shots of the empty Texas landscape only serve to remind us of how big the entire film is. To a certain extent, the size of Giant‘s production is to be understood. In the 1950s, Hollywood was having to compete with television and they did this by trying to make every film into a major event. You watch a movie like Giant and you practically hear the old Hollywood moguls shouting at America, “See!? You can’t get that on your precious TV, can you!?”
For those of us watching Giant today, the length is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because the movie really is too damn long. The opening scenes drag and many of them really do feel superfluous. It’s hard not to feel that the real story doesn’t really start until about 90 minutes into the movie. And once the story really does get started, there’s still way too much of it for it all to be crammed into one sitting. Oddly enough, you end up feeling as if this extremely long film is still not telling you everything that you need to know. If Giant were made today, it would probably be a two-part movie on either HBO or Lifetime and it would definitely feature a lot more sex.
However, to be honest, one of the reasons that I did enjoy Giant was because it was as big as it was. I mean, the film is about Texas so of course it should be a little excessive! Everything’s bigger in Texas and that includes our movies. Add to that, Giant may be too long but it uses that length to deals with issues that are still relevant today — oil, immigration, and racial prejudice. Rock Hudson may not have been a great actor but he is at least convincing as he transitions from bigotry to tolerance.
But really, when it comes to Giant, most people are only interested in James Dean. And they definitely should be because Dean gives a great and compelling performance here. Dean brings all of the emotional intensity of the method to material that one would not naturally associate with method acting and the end result is amazing to watch. Giant was released after Dean had been killed in that infamous car wreck. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in a theater in 1956 and to see this compelling and charismatic actor towering above the world on the big screen while aware, all the time, that his life had already been cut short and he would never been seen in another film.
Even better, Dean’s new style of acting clashes perfectly with Hudson’s old style of acting, making the conflict between Bick and Jett feel all the more real and intense. Much as Bick represents old Texas and Jett represents the new Texas, Hudon and Dean represented the two sides of Hollywood: the celebrity and the artist. Needless to say, Dean wins the battle but, surprisingly, Hudson occasionally manages to hold his own.
I can’t necessarily say that Giant is an essential film. A lot of people are going to be bored by the excessive length. But if you’re a fan of James Dean or if you’re from Texas, Giant is a film that you need to see at least once.