Thursday, October 29, 2009

1956 - Giant

An interesting thing is happening as I review the films from 1956. As I mentioned previously, along with the Best Picture nominees, I am also watching the nominees from the Supporting Actress category for a Smackdown to be posted this Sunday at StinkyLulu's blog. The interesting thing is that I seem to be enjoying the supporting actresses' films more than the ones nominated for Best Picture. Written on the Wind and Baby Doll, for example, had me engaged on a deeper level than any of the Picture nominees so far. Not that I've specifically disliked any of them. I guess, as an actor, I'm simply bound to be drawn to films that contain more Oscar worthy performances.

Interestingly, the next film in Matt vs. the Academy, is not only the sole film to appear on both the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress nominations list, but it also stars actors from the two films I mentioned above, namely Rock Hudson from Written on the Wind and Carroll Baker from Baby Doll. Coincidence? Probably. The film in question, which I viewed today, is...

George Stevens
Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat
(based on the novel by Edna Ferber)
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

As its title suggests, Giant is a big film about a big family living in a big state. The Benedicts are a wealthy Texan family with acres of ranch land. When the head of the family, Bick, brings home his new bride from Maryland, things become a bit rocky. Leslie is a bit of a feminist and Texan men are not in the mood for changing their traditions. Ranch handyman Jett is somewhat unpopular, but when Bick's sister dies, leaving a small piece of land to Jett, Bick can only stand by as Jett discovers oil, becoming wealthier than the Benedicts ever could have imagined. Time goes by and Bick and Leslie have three children, but it's his only son that Bick dotes over, expecting him to take over the ranch one day. But Jordy has other plans. Not only does he want to become a doctor, but he also falls for a Mexican-American woman, both cause for his father's disdain.

At well over three hours long, Giant certainly lives up to its name. It is a saga. But it's an intimate saga. Although the ranch is massive, the people living on it are still subject to the same human condition. They love, they fear, they fight, they learn. Director George Stevens is constantly obscuring his characters from view, behind newspapers or in darkness, as if to highlight how small they become amongst such a grand landscape.

Perhaps also it is symbolic of how hidden they are from each other. The main couple, Bick and Leslie, have opposing ideals. He is a traditionalist, she a progressive. Bick lives in a world where men are men and women are not. Leslie, with her feminism and humanitarianism, doesn't seem to fit in, but even she has her own prejudices. For instance, when her daughter shows an interest in ranching, Leslie is downright against it, preferring her to pursue a more refined career, one more suitable for a lady.

The film explores the dichotomy between our plans for the future and the reality. Bick, especially, struggles with letting go of tradition in a changing world. He is denied his vision of passing on the reins (literally) to his son. To add insult to injury, his ex-handyman becomes the richest man in Texas. In the end, however, he learns to adjust. Where once he supported the segregation of Mexican-Americans, he now stands up for their right to eat in the same diner as everyone else.

For its righteous themes, however, Giant contains a great deal of seemingly unnecessary fistfighting. As was standard in those days, throwing a punch seemed to be the only respected way to resolve an issue. I thought perhaps Bick had finally learned his lesson when he felt ashamed after a fight, but his shame was not from resorting to violence, but that he lost. He is buoyed by his wife, who even describes the altercation as "glorious", proud that her husband stood up for a worthy cause. It's as if to say, "Well, you may not have won, but at least you threw the first punch." Really? Is this sort of caveman attitude to be glorified? Or perhaps I misunderstood and the whole point was to represent the flaws in this kind of masculinity, especially in Texas.

James Dean, in his final role, exudes a unique energy, enough to garner him his second posthumous Oscar nomination. Elizabeth Taylor gives a mature performance beyond her years. She was just 23 years old when the film was shot, one year younger than Carroll Baker, who played her daughter. We are also treated to an impressive (and very young) Dennis Hopper as Jordy.

Only one more picture from 1956 to go, the longest one yet. Longer, in fact, than the first two 1956 nominees I watched put together!


  1. Giant is an interesting film. It seems to be both of its time and ahead of its time with respect to its views on sexism and bigotry. It's epic in its length, yet intimate in its mise en scene (Director Stevens shot this in 1.66 rather than the favored CinemaScope of that year) It takes its time with giving us the dynamics of its relationships and still covers a thirty year period and multi-generations.

    The performances were impressive. Rock Hudson had one of his best roles, and though he would never reach the stature of a great actor, doesn't embarrass himself here. James Dean, in what was really a supporting role, gives us a last glimpse of his charisma, before his untimely death. Some of his 'method' affectations seem out of place, but seeing him in those silent scenes walking off his land with a grim determination reminded me a bit of Daniel Day Lewis's oil man in There Will be Blood.

    I was a bit surprised that Mercedes McCambridge's brief role got her a supporting actress nomination. I preferred her other androgynous cowgirl in Johnny Guitar.

    Elizabeth Taylor was perhaps my biggest surprise. She really was excellent as the conscience of the film. Not only beautiful, but so mature and believable.

    I wouldn't call 1956's Best Picture slate any kind of benchmark for realistic cinema, but Giant perhaps comes closest.

  2. I'm amazed at how you went through great lengths to describe Bick Benedict's character, yet forget to comment on Rock Hudson's performance in this review. Just amazed.