An epic family saga about humanity and a changing America
“Giant” is a film I began to appreciate as I got older. As a kid I watched it because I loved Elizabeth Taylor and it was one of only three movies with James Dean. While I was completely captivated by the acting, compelling story, and stunning visuals, somehow its powerful social commentary eluded me. It wasn’t until many years later when I saw a restored version on the big screen at the Academy movie theater that I was completely blown away. I realized that “Giant” is an exposition about prejudice, greed, the thirst for power, class issues, changing times, and the importance of love and understanding – all of which seem to be a permanent part of the human condition. A critical and box-office success, “Giant” earned ten Academy Award nominations (winning one), and set the record as Warner Brothers’ highest grossing film ever (a record it held until the late 1970s). Decades later, the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 82nd Greatest American Movie of All-Time. This mighty film is one you certainly don’t want to miss.
“Giant" opens as wealthy Texas rancher “Bick Benedict Jr.” goes to Maryland to buy a horse and comes back with a horse and an Eastern socialite bride named "Leslie”. Unfamiliar with Texas (which“Bick” describes as “almost a different country”), when they arrive at his Texas cattle ranch (named “Reata”), the strong-willed "Leslie" quickly finds herself in a world where women are expected to be seen not heard and racism (especially against Mexicans) and classism abound, none of which sit well with her. In addition, their ranch hand named “Jett” resents “Bick”, coveting "Bick's" life and new wife.
The film follows "Bick" and "Leslie" over three decades, having kids and grandkids, and as the plutocracy of Texas shifts from being run by generations of cattle barons to nouveau riche oil millionaires. The land changes the people, and the people change the land. Yet with so many social themes floating around, the film never offers a moral lesson or comment but merely presents them. Texas stands as a microcosm of America, and this timeless film brilliantly leads its viewers to reflect upon themselves and society, for good and bad. And that is the work of the film’s masterfully talented director, George Stevens, one of cinema’s true greats. And“Giant” is first and foremost a George Stevens film.
A director known for impeccable framing, extracting great performances, and telling stories cinematically, Stevens turns “Giant” into a visual and emotional banquet. He believed audiences came to see films to learn about themselves and that the value of movies were the ideas fostered in them, not the money they made. He made movies the way he wanted with the hopes that people would watch them for decades. Never rushing, be it in his films or on the set, he lets things play out in his movies in what feels like real time, and would film scenes from every angle imaginable. He would also famously spend months overseeing the editing of his movies.
A master at expressing things visually with little or no explanation or even dialogue, rather than show big dramatic scenes (as any other director would), Stevens frequently provides clues to what just happened. One sublime example is when “Leslie’s" horse “War Winds” returns alone to the house. As we watch “War Winds” enter the frame from afar limping to the house, we know exactly what just took place. This is filmmaking at its most cinematically exciting, making for riveting moviegoing. And “Giant" is dotted with this type of storytelling, such as how we learn “Bick” and “Leslie” are married, or later seeing a hat on a bed indicating they just had sex. Steven's brilliant direction showcases what only cinema can do. One can learn a lot about how much a director shapes a film by watching his work. It is no surprise he earned a Best Director Academy Award for this film (the film’s only Oscar win).
George Stevens was born to stage actors in Oakland, California, and he made his stage debut at the age of five. When he was ten, his mother gave him a camera, which began his interest in photography. By the age of seventeen, Stevens was working as an assistant cameraman for Hal Roach Studios, and by 1926 was Roach’s primary cameraman. Stevens was director of photography and gag writer for 35 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comedy shorts, and said the legendary comedy duo taught him that comedy could be “graceful and human” – an influence that colored all of Steven’s work, including how the humor in “Giant” flows naturally from its characters. In 1934, Stevens signed with RKO Pictures and his major film directorial debut came when Katharine Hepburn requested he direct her 1935 film “Alice Adams”. The film was hit and put Stevens on the Hollywood map.
He was now directing major films and top stars such as the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical "Swing Time”, “Vivacious Lady” with James Stewart, "Vigil in the Night” starring Carole Lombard, and the classic war film "Gunga Din" starring Cary Grant. In 1942, Hepburn summoned Stevens to direct her in "Woman of the Year", her first film opposite Spencer Tracy, and the two became one of the screen's great duos (you can read more about them in my post on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”). Stevens next directed two Jean Arthur classics, 1942’s “Talk of the Town” and the 1944 comedy "The More the Merrier", which earned him his first Best Director Academy Award nomination.
When the US entered WWII, Stevens joined the US Army Signal Corps as head of a film unit and filmed such historic events as the D-Day landings at Normandy Beach, the liberation of Paris, and the freeing of prisoners at the Dachau Concentration Camp. The horrors, brutality, and atrocities he saw forever changed him, and he never made another pure comedy. His first post-war film was a nostalgic drama of times past, "I Remember Mama", followed by his 1951 classic, "A Place in the Sun", which earned him Best Director and Best Picture (as the film’s producer) Oscar nominations. Two films later came the classic Western "Shane", earning him two more Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Picture). In 1954, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him their Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for making consistently high-quality motion pictures.
"Giant" came next, and it is thought that his experiences during the war witnessing the effects of antisemitism helped inspire him to make this film, which is largely about prejudice. His Best Director Oscar win for “Giant” was his third and final win, and he also earned a Best Picture nomination as producer. Stevens made only three more films after “Giant”, beginning with 1959’s "The Diary of Anne Frank" (earning him his final two Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations). His last two films were 1965’s "The Greatest Story Ever Told” and 1970’s "The Only Game in Town” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Stevens was married twice, including his first marriage to actress Yvonne Howell with whom he had his only child, George Stevens Jr. (also a film producer, director, and writer). George Stevens died in 1975 at the age of 70. You can read a bit more about him in my post on “A Place in the Sun”.
It was Stevens who decided to transform Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel “Giant” into a movie. Ferber’s books had long been popular inspiration for films, such as "So Big”, "Show Boat", and “Cimarron”, but no one jumped at adapting the 400+ page “Giant" because it would cost a fortune to make, Texans hated the book, and there was fear of lawsuits since it was thought to be about real oil tycoons Robert Kleberg Jr. and Glenn Herbert McCarthy. But Stevens saw there was an epic here using Texas as a microcosm for a powerful statement about America. He thought the negative Texas reactions would be good for publicity and knew he would do everything he could to make sure to present a balanced view of their state that they would embrace. So he partnered with producer Henry Ginsberg and Ferber to form their own production company, "Giant Productions”. They worked without salaries for an equal split of any profits.
Stevens enlisted screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat to adapt the screenplay (Stevens, Ferber, George Stevens Jr., and others also helped), which went from 366 pages down to 178. Details were changed from the book, but its essence remained. Guiol and Moffat each received Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nominations.
Partial to location filming, other than interior shots (which were filmed on sets on the Warner Brothers lot in California), Stevens shot exteriors on location in Virginia (which stood in for Maryland) and Texas. Art director Boris Leven spent ten days searching for locations in Texas and came upon the small, remote cattle town of Marfa. It had one hotel and a population of roughly 3600. It was surrounded by flat plains and he thought it would be interesting to have a lone house on the empty land with nothing around but cattle. Stevens loved the idea as well as the sketch Leven made of the house he envisioned (which ended up being the house they built). The house was actually a facade (with only a front and sides) tied to telephone poles to keep it heavy wind proof. It was three stories high, stood at 64 feet at its highest tower, and had 81 feet of porches – the largest Warner Brothers set ever constructed. It was left standing after filming was completed and eventually crumbled in the 1980s. The image of the house on the plains became iconic. Levin (along with Ralph S. Hurst) received a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination.
The cast and crew of about 250 people filmed for 5 ½ weeks near Marfa. To help ingratiate the Hollywood people to the people of Marfa, Stevens allowed the townspeople to watch filming and also invited them to watch dailies (footage filmed the day before) in the town’s only movie theater. He used locals as extras and in bit parts, particularly in the BBQ scene. In a quest for accuracy, he hired a Texan dialogue coach to make sure all actors playing Texans had a proper Texan accent.
The film turned out to be “giant” in every way – its production (44 days over schedule, more than $3 million over budget, and taking a year to edit), its 197 minute running time, its large roster of stellar performances, its wide-ranging story, and its staggering landscapes. But don’t let its mammoth proportions fool you. It may be an epic saga, but “Giant” remains a very intimate and personal portrait of a Texas family. Stevens had a way of making all his characters feel genuinely human, flaws and all, and we understand and invest in them and eagerly wait to see what happens next. Because we follow “Leslie”, “Bick”, and “Jett” through over thirty years, Stevens was faced with either casting older established actors and making them look younger for earlier scenes (as was the Hollywood norm), or hiring younger actors and age them as the film progressed. To everyone’s surprise, he cast younger actors.
Stevens originally offered the part of “Leslie” to Audrey Hepburn who turned it down, and then to Hollywood’s hottest actress at the time, Grace Kelly, who was unavailable. Twenty-three year old Elizabeth Taylor felt her career was stale and thought Stevens and this role could revive it. A child star since the age of twelve, as she grew older she longed for more adult roles and in 1951 Stevens came to the rescue with “A Place in the Sun”, the first film where Taylor was able to display her acting chops. Though now playing more adult roles, her studio (MGM), was still assigning her unchallenging parts. She talked her way into being cast in “Giant”, and though Stevens initially thought her too young, he knew her capabilities from their previous work together and gave her the part. This time around, he boosted her career towards superstardom.
Starring as the determined “Leslie Lynnton Benedict”, Elizabeth Taylor is nothing short of mesmerizing. Her years spent in front of the camera paid off, for Taylor’s work in “Giant” is flooded with a multitude of subtleties and an overriding naturalness. Whether deliciously coy (as in the first dinner scene), tough as nails (when the men are talking business), or unexpectedly moving (not uttering a word in the extraordinary scene at her sister’s wedding), Taylor is magnetic and her effortless acting remains invisible. Being such an exceptional beauty had always overshadowed her talent, but “Giant” finally let her acting emerged front and center.
It was a tough shoot for Taylor, who had given birth to her second child (from her second husband) just a few months prior and went on a liquid diet to regain her figure. She suffered from many aliments during filming, including a leg infection, sciatica, bladder pain, and laryngitis, and had clashes with Stevens, who would sometimes shout in front of everyone that she only cared about her looks and would never become an actress. Feeling he wanted to humiliate her, the feisty Taylor would lash back. Knowing Stevens' modus operandi for working with actors (slyly getting them to live in the emotional state of their characters), his tirades were most likely a ploy to get Taylor to feel the anger and demoralization that “Leslie” felt so he could capture it onscreen. Whatever the reason, in the end “Giant” turned Elizabeth Taylor into a serious actress.
Surprisingly not nominated for an Oscar, Taylor received tremendous reviews (The Guardian said her performance was "an astonishing revelation of unsuspected gifts”) and “Giant” began the height of her acting career as a full-fledged dramatic actress. Starting with her very next film “Raintree County”, the next ten years would bring her five Best Actress Academy Award nominations with two wins. You can read more about the life and career of Elizabeth Taylor in two of my previous posts, “A Place in the Sun” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. Just click on the film titles to open those posts.
Twenty-eight year old Rock Hudson is completely convincing as “Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.”, the ruler of a Texas cattle empire. With a quiet kind of authority and an overwhelming geniality, Hudson makes “Bick” a sympathetic and real individual, even with his prejudices. Hudson loved working with Stevens and made himself putty in the director’s hands. Even before filming began, Stevens inflated Hudson's ego, made him feel important and feel he was rich, all to get Hudson to inhabit “Bick’s” tycoon nature, and it worked. To help him with aging, Stevens had Hudson watch films starring older actors Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper to study how they moved and behaved, and that too worked, for Hudson is believable as a father and grandfather. He can be somewhat funny and also moving, such as when he's drunk and his dreams are falling by the wayside. It was a surprise when Stevens announced Hudson for the role, and “Giant” was his first major acting challenge. His depth-filled work proved there was more to Rock Hudson than his strapping good looks. It also earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination (his only) and made him a top star.
Having previously achieved stardom as a romantic heartthrob with 1954’s "Magnificent Obsession”, Hudson was a very hot property and there were suddenly worries and threats of blackmail that he would be exposed as a homosexual. Sadly, the outing of a gay actor in the 1950s was a sure way to end a career, and Hudson, his agent, and his studio all had a lot to lose. So, as was often the case in Hollywood, to squelch any rumors, a marriage was arranged for Hudson to marry his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. They married three weeks after the premiere of “Giant” and remained married for just over two years before divorcing. You can read more about the life and career of Rock Hudson in two previous posts, “Pillow Talk” and “All That Heaven Allows”.
The third star of “Giant” is twenty-three year old James Dean, who gives a scene stealing portrayal as “Jett Rink”, a poor ranch hand turned oil tycoon. “Jett” begrudges “Bick” and the “Benedict's” success and lifestyle, except for “Bick’s” sister “Luz”, and he has also fallen for “Leslie”. Dean brims with restless anger and vulnerability and expresses a lot through his face and physicality. His excitement when striking oil has become iconic. There’s an uninhibited quality and freedom to Dean which no other actor I can think of can match. He is truthful, emotional, and always surprising. He spent months learning rope tricks and how to ride horses from cowboys for the role, as well as how to shoot a rifle. Dean earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for this film.
James Dean made only three films – “East of Eden”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, and "Giant”, earning two consecutive posthumous Best Actor Oscar nominations for “East of Eden” and “Giant” (the first male actor to earn a posthumous nomination and the only actor to receive two). He had been working extensively on television and there was great buzz about him even before “East of Eden” was released. That film opened about a month before “Giant” began filming, just after Dean completed filming “Rebel Without a Cause”. After the release of “East of Eden”, Dean became a sensation, touted as the new face of Method acting and the new Marlon Brando. He expressed the angst felt by many at the time, particularly the youth, and his rebel persona and immense vulnerability helped redefine what it was to be a man.
Dean is repeatedly described by those who knew him as emotionally needy, strange, guarded, unkempt, angry, moody, and desperately needing attention. He was difficult on the set of “Giant”, giving just about everyone a hard time. He didn’t like Stevens or the way he directed and resented sitting around while others filmed their scenes. He hated Hudson and Hudson hated Dean. Dean would make fun of Hudson and Taylor for being Hollywood actors and not Method actors. Dean and Hudson were both gay (though some claim Dean was bisexual), and Dean reportedly let everyone working on “Giant” know of Hudson’s homosexuality. Jealous of how close Hudson had become with Taylor (the two remained lifelong friends), after a stormy introduction, Dean began to open up to Taylor about his painful past to gain her motherly attention. It worked, and in her warm way she became close with Dean as well. He evidently took pleasure in stealing her away from Hudson whenever possible.
High speeds and racing were among Dean’s biggest passions and he had previously entered and won several car races. Stevens and Warner Brothers forbid him from racing while working on “Giant” and Dean honored that request. Itching to race, two days before he finished filming he bought a brand new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, and a week later entered the Salinas Road Race. While driving the Spyder from Los Angeles to the race in Salinas (with his mechanic), Dean was stopped and given a speeding ticket. He continued north, hit a car, his sports car bounced and crashed, and Dean was killed. He was dead at twenty-four.
Dean’s death was announced to the cast and crew while they were watching dailies the day of filming the final sequence. Everyone was shocked and Taylor was especially distraught. Being behind schedule, they worked the following day and Taylor could barely function or stop sobbing, which infuriated Stevens. She collapsed and was hospitalized, returning the next day. Her grief was so bad, she had to return to the hospital and came back a week later to finish the shot. Though his filming was done, Dean was needed to dub some lines of dialogue for his drunk scene at the banquet hall, and actor Nick Adams served as his voice double. Dean’s talent made him a star, and his untimely death made him a legend. You can read more about James Dean in my post on “Rebel Without a Cause”.
An actor who knew Dean from the Actors Studio is Carroll Baker, who plays “Luz Benedict II”, “Leslie” and “Bick’s" daughter, in what is considered Baker's film debut. She is fantastic, really capturing the essence of a teenage girl without a single false note. And her scene in the booth with “Jett” is marvelously layered.
Pennsylvania-born Carroll Baker worked as a magician's assistant and a professional dancer before turning to acting. Making her way to New York City, she studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio alongside Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe, Dean, and others. She began on TV in 1952, followed by a bit part in the 1953 film "Easy to Love". Broadway and more TV roles followed, and then "Giant". Her next film made her a household name, playing the title role in Tennessee Williams' "Baby Doll", directed by Elia Kazan, also in 1956. In it she played a sexually repressed teenager who marries a middle-aged man. Its controversial subject at the time and publicity photos of a scantily clad Baker made her famous even before the film opened. She earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination (her only), and won a Golden Globe as the Most Promising Newcomer (for "Giant" and "Baby Doll”). "Baby Doll" is also the film for which she is best known. In her 50+ year career, Baker worked in TV, theater, and films, accruing 86 film and TV credits to date. Some of her other films include "How the West Was Won", "The Big Country", "The Carpetbaggers", "Kindergarten Cop", "The Greatest Story Ever Told", "Cheyenne Autumn", "Easy to Love", "The Game", and "Star 80". She was married three times, including marriages to director Jack Garfein and actor Donald Burton. As of the writing of this post, Carroll Baker is 91 years old.
Stevens talked former child star Jane Withers out of retirement to take on the part of “Vashti Hake Snyth”, the “Benedict's" neighbor, and Withers is perfect in the role. The second we see her at the BBQ being introduced to “Leslie”, we know exactly who this woman is just from her expression and body language.
Jane Withers was a major child star of the 1930s and 40s, hitting it big when at 8 years old playing a spoiled brat who picks on Shirley Temple in the 1934 film "Bright Eyes". She became incredibly popular, and while Temple was cute and sweet, Withers often played mischievous tomboy types, becoming known as "America's favorite problem child". She made three to five films a year through 1942, often with top billing over other established actors. As audience tastes were changing and her popularity was declining, Withers retired in 1947 at the age of 21. "Giant" was her return, and after it she worked primarily on TV, including a stint as "Josephine the Plumber" in Comet cleanser TV commercials in the 1960s and 70s. In 1996, she voiced the character of "Laverne" in the Walt Disney animated film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", a role she reprised in the Disney video games, and in her final performance in the sequel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II" in 2020. Her other films include "Paddy O’Day", "The Farmer Takes a Wife", "Shooting High", "The North Star", and "Danger Street". She was married three times (widowed twice). Jane Withers died in 2021 at the age of 95, and was perhaps the last surviving major star of the 1930s. I met her several years back and she was very nice.
Chill Wills gives a touching, believable, and empathetic performance as "Uncle Bawley". The Texas-born Chill Wills was a well-known character actor, best known for his bellowing voice, playing comedic characters largely in Westerns, and as the voice of "Francis the Talking Mule" in six films from 1950 to 1955. By the late 1950s, he began working primarily on television, and by the end of his career appeared in well over 100 films and TV shows, including many classics, such as "The Yearling", "The Harvey Girls", "The Westerner", "The Man from the Alamo", "Leave Her to Heaven", and as "Mr. Neely" in "Meet Me in St. Louis". He earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in "The Alamo", directed by John Wayne. He was married twice. Chill Wills died in 1978 at the age of 76.
Another Oscar-nominated performance in “Giant” is that of Mercedes McCambridge who plays “Luz Benedict”, “Bick’s" sister. “Luz” is tough, no-nonsense, runs “Reata”, and sees “Leslie” as a threat to both running “Reata” and her closeness with her brother. McCambridge is sensational at creating a character we believe really exists and her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for “Giant” was her second, having won the award the first time around for the 1949 classic "All the King's Men".
Illinois-born Mercedes McCambridge became known for her district voice and playing hardened, somewhat manly characters. She began on radio in the 1930s while working on Broadway, and was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Her first TV appearance was in 1949, followed by her first film – her Oscar-winning role in "All the King's Men". She worked for the next 40 years primarily on TV and in supporting roles in movies. Her other films include "Johnny Guitar", "Touch of Evil", "Suddenly, Last Summer", "Cimarron", "Thieves", and "A Farewell to Arms". She is perhaps best remembered today for being the voice of the demon that possesses Linda Blair in the classic 1973 horror film "The Exorcist”, which made McCambridge somewhat of a cult figure (she was uncredited in the film and took Warner Brothers to court, eventually getting credit). She was married and divorced twice. Mercedes McCambridge died in 2004 at the age of 87.
There are four actors who appear in “Giant”, that I’ve previously written about in this blog and want to point out again. First is Dennis Hopper who plays “Jordan ‘Jordy’ Benedict III”, “Leslie” and “Bick’s" son. He is one of several "Giant" cast members who appeared in "Rebel Without a Cause” the year before (which was Hopper's film debut). "Giant" was his third film. You can read more about Dennis Hopper in my post on "Rebel Without a Cause".
Another “Rebel Without a Cause” alumnus appearing in "Giant" is Sal Mineo who plays the grown “Ángel Obregón II”. Though “Rebel Without a Cause” hadn’t been released yet, talk around town was that Mineo was tremendous in it and would become the new teen idol (which he did), and Dean suggested Mineo to Stevens for “Ángel”. Because of his success (and an Oscar nomination) in “Rebel without a Cause”, Mineo’s name and photo were featured in publicity for “Giant”, and I’m sure the fans who went to see him in the film felt cheated, as he is onscreen very briefly. You can read more about Sal Mineo in my "Rebel Without a Cause" post. Please check it out.
Another actor at the beginning of his career who went on to become a big star is Rod Taylor (billed as Rodney Taylor), who plays “Sir David Karfrey”, “Lacy’s" husband. “Giant” came when he was just starting to move from bit parts to supporting, and his breakthrough role came in 1960 with "The Time Machine". You can read more about the Australian-born Rod Taylor in my post on a classic in which he stars, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds". Click on the film title to check it out.
And finally, is Earl Holliman who plays “Robert ‘Bob’ Dace”, “Judy’s" husband. Holliman was working steadily in smaller roles at this point, including as "Cook" in "Forbidden Planet” earlier that same year. He went on to become a well-known leading and supporting character actor in many classics, as well as co-starring with Angie Dickinson on the 1970s TV show "Police Woman", which made him a household name. As of the writing of this post, Earl Holliman is 94 years old. You can read more about him in my post on "Forbidden Planet”.
In addition to Stevens’ Academy Award win for Best Director, the previously mentioned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hudson and Dean), Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, "Giant" also received Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design (Moss Mabry and Marjorie Best), Best Film Editing (William Hornbeck, Philip W. Anderson, and Fred Bohanan), and Best Music Score (Dimitri Tiomkin - who you can read about in my "High Noon" post).
This week’s exceptionally entertaining classic has enough visual, emotional, and mental stimulation to captivate even the most jaded viewer. And it is a rare film that seems to only get deeper and deeper with every viewing. So sit back and enjoy “Giant”!
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