Wow, that Edna Ferber sure was a bitch.
That was my first thought as I read Giant, Don Graham’s history about the making of the film of the same name. In the early 50s, Edna Ferber, a writer who was born in Michigan, raised in Wisconsin, and lived in New York, wrote a novel about Texas. The novel was called Giant and it told a story of ranchers, oilmen, and casual racists. It was meant to be an attack on Texas, a warning to the rest of the country to not allow itself to turn into Texas. Ferber presented Texas as being a land where everything was big and everyone owned a jet and an oil well and all the rest of the usual stereotypes. When Ferber’s novel was turned into a movie, she was apparently not happy to discover that the film was not the vehement denunciation of the state and its citizens that she wished it to be. In Don Graham’s book, Edna Feber often seems to be hovering in the background of every scene, throwing a fit about every detail of the movie. She comes across as a certain type of character that every Texan has had to deal with: the angry Northerner who can’t understand why we’re not as impressed with them as they are.
That’s not to say that Giant, as a film, was blindly pro-Texas. The film featured a subplot that deal with the prejudice that Mexicans faced in Texas. But the film also indicated that things could change and that people could grow and that was something that Ferber apparently did not agree with, at least as far as Texans are concerned.
If Graham’s entire book was just about Ferber’s displeasure with Giant, it would make for a fairly tedious read but, fortunately, Edna Ferber is just a minor part of the sprawling story that Graham tells. Instead of worrying too much about Ferber, Graham focuses on the filming of Giant and how it not only brought Hollywood to the citizens of Marfa, Texas but also what it meant to George Stevens, the film’s director and it’s three stars, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. Giant was the film that proved that Elizabeth Taylor could act. It was also the film that brought Rock Hudson some rare critical acclaim. And, perhaps most importantly, it was the last film that James Dean made before his death.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is at its most interesting when it deals with James Dean. Graham does not make the mistake of blindly idolizing Dean. Indeed, Dean often comes across as a brat. Graham writes about Marlon Brando’s well-known dislike of Dean but he also shares anecdotes from the set that reveal that Dean was incredibly talented but also very self-destructive. Reading about Dean’s behavior and his frayed relationship with George Stevens, one gets the feeling that, even if he had survived the car accident, Dean’s acting career probably would never have survived his own self-destructive impulses. Graham celebrates Dean’s talent without idealizing his character.
Much as in the movie, Rock Hudson is frequently overshadowed by Dean. In the book, Hudson comes across as being …. well, he’s come across as being a bit of a jerk. Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, comes across as being driven, fragile, and committed to her stardom. She also comes across as possessing an unexpectedly sharp wit. If both Dean and Hudson were both a bit too self-impressed, Taylor possessed the knowledge of someone who had spent her entire life in the film industry.
Don Graham’s Giant is an entertaining book. Full of anecdotes and more than a little bit juicy speculation about what went on behind the scenes, Giant is a great read for Texans and film fans alike!