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Film Friday: "Giant" (1956)

Keeping with both my Oscar-themed "Film Fridays" and my James Dean-themed week, this week on "Film Friday" I bring the only James Dean film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Incidentally, this was the last film he appeared in.

Theatrical release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by George Stevens, Giant (1956) begins with Texas cattle tycoon Jordan "Bick" Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson) falling in love with Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) while on a horse-buying trip to Maryland. They marry and return to Texas to live on the Benedict family ranch, Reata, where Leslie finds an unwelcoming sister-in-law, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), and a handyman, Jett Rink (James Dean), who despises Bick. When Luz dies following a horse-riding accident, Jett learns that she has left him a small piece of land on the Benedict ranch, which he makes his home and names Little Reata. After refusing the Benedict family's offer to buy Little Reata, Jett discovers oil on the land, making him a rich man.

Meanwhile, Leslie and Bick quarrel over her independent spirit and her humanity in defense of local Mexicans. Love sustains them through their differences and they eventually have three children: a couple of twins and a younger daughter. However, none of them grow up as their parents would have wished. Jordan "Jordy" Benedict III (Dennis Hopper) has no interest in running Reata; he becomes a doctor and marries a Mexican-American girl named Juana (Elsa Cárdenas). His twin, Judy (Fran Bennett), refuses to attend finishing school in Switzerland, marries local cow hand Bob Dace (Earl Holliman) and starts her own ranch. The youngest daughter, Luz (Caroll Baker), develops a crush on Jett, much to her parents' dismay. After Juana is racially insulted at a party given by Jett, Jordy gets in a fight with Jett that leaves him nearly unconscious. Bick goes to his son's defense, but lowers his fists once he sees that Jett is so drunk that he cannot defend himself. On the way home the following day, they stop at a diner where Bick gets in a fistfight to defend the rights of Mexicans to eat there. Although Bick is completely defeated by the diner's racist owner, Sarge (Mickey Simpson), Leslie later tells him that she has never been more proud of him. Back at Reata, Leslie and Bick reflect on the Benedict family's legacy and look to their grandsons, one white and one Hispanic, to build the future of Texas.

Jett Rink: My well came in big, so big, Bick and there's more down there and there's bigger wells. I'm rich, Bick. I'm a rich 'un. I'm a rich boy. Me, I'm gonna have more money than you ever thought you could have you and all the rest of you stinkin' sons of... Benedicts!

Historical novelist Edna Ferber began her fruitful association with Hollywood in 1918, when Metro Pictures, later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, adapted her play Our Mrs. McChesney into a silent comedy starring Ethel Barrymore. With the introduction of sound to motion pictures in 1927, Ferber's writings became increasingly entwined with Hollywood's filmmaking, as the new medium "transformed and reenergized" historical dramas more than any other genre. After Cimarron (1931) was named Best Picture at the 4th Academy Awards, Ferber's reputation in Hollywood rapidly expanded and studios began paying large amounts of money to adapt her often controversial best-selling novels to the screen. Between 1918 and 1960, her work originated no fewer than 25 films, including So Big (1925, 1932, 1953), Show Boat (1936, 1951) and Saratoga Trunk (1945).

In the early 1950s, Ferber wrote Giant, a love story set within the context of racial tensions and recounting the lives of three very different generations of a Texas dynasty. Initially serialized in Ladies' Home Journal, the novel was published by Doubleday in the fall of 1952 and it was an immediate success, capturing the imagination of masses of readers across the nation. However, not unlike most of Ferber's previous works, Giant also sparked a fair amount of controversy upon its release. Some native Texans were especially outraged, as they believed that Ferber, "not a Texan," painted them in a bad light: as racists and, worse yet, as "nouveau riche social climbers." The story included nothing less than an interracial marriage within the book's family of protagonists, the Benedicts, after the family treats their Mexican hands as poorly as does the rest of their community. The heightened interest in Giant soon caught the attention of director George Stevens, who thought it would the perfect source material for a feature film.

Edna Ferber and George Stevens on the set
After returning home from World War II, Stevens had found himself at an emotional and professional crossroads. The horrors he and his film crew had experienced at the Dachau concentration camp had left with a darker view of human nature and felt the need to undertake projects that had "personal, and hopefully, social meaning," stories that could express in some way what he had seen in the war. He was attracted to Giant because it was "big and wide, incorporating contemporary issues such as consumers moving westward, women earning emotional independence and racial conflicts beginning to surface in America's social fabric."

The controversy surrounding the publication of Giant also caught the eye of Henry Ginsberg, who was head of production at Paramount Pictures from 1944 to 1950. Working on A Place in the Sun (1951), which was filmed in 1949, had put several years of animosity between Stevens and Ginsberg, but Giant brought them back together. Since Ginsberg was acquainted with Ferber and knew how to broker deals, he and Stevens decided to create an independent production company in late 1952 and soon made the author an offer for the screen rights to Giant. Shortly afterwards, Ginsberg came up with the idea that the three form a company for the purposes of "producing, distributing, exploiting motion pictures beginning with Giant and also photoplays based on other literary properties of Edna Ferber." Ferber would write, Ginsberg would produce and Stevens would direct, each for no compensation. Giant Productions was formed in May 1953 and, in November, the company finally acquired the film and its allied rights for ten years.

Rock Hudson's wardrobe test
Finding a studio to back Giant Productions, however, was not an easy task. Despite Stevens's popularity with the movie-going public, the financial and critical success of his latest picture, Shane (1953), was still "untested and uncertain." At one point, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century Fox, expressed interest in the project, but it was Jack Warner who eventually took a chance on Giant. A contract signed with Warner Bros. in December 1953 stipulated that the studio would completely finance the picture, as well as handle its distribution and advertising. Neither Ferber, Stevens or Ginsberg would receive a salary, but would share 50 percent of the profits after Warners recouped its costs.

Early on in the casting process, Stevens thought of reteaming Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954) stars Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, but they both turned him down. With Holden out of the running, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper expressed interest in portraying Bick Benedict, but Stevens chose instead Rock Hudson, reportedly after seeing him in Raoul Walsh's The Lawless Breed (1953), where he had played a gunfighter from youth to old age. In order to get Universal, his home studio, to agree to the loan to Warner Bros., Hudson was forced to extend his contract for another four years. In addition, Hudson's agent, Henry Wilson, took advantage of his client's signing by securing parts for other actors he represented: Jane Withers, who appeared as the Benedicts' neighbor Vashti Hake Snythe; and Fran Bennett, who played Judy Benedict as an adult.

Stevens, Taylor and Hudson on location
After Hepburn declined the female lead in Giant, Stevens briefly considered Grace Kelly, Jane Wyman, Jennifer Jones, Jean Simmons, Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, Irenne Dunne and Anne Baxter. He especially wanted Kelly because she was, in his words, the "most important female star" of the time. Kelly was interested in playing the pivotal role of Leslie Lynnton Benedict, but MGM refused to loan her to Warners. At the same time, 23-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who had starred in A Place in the Sun, was campaigning vigorously for a chance to portray Leslie. Although she was due to have a baby, her second child with second husband Michael Wilding, she promised to be ready to work soon after. Stevens, however, thought her too young to play a woman who ages 25 years as the story's unwavering matriarch. Apparently, it was Hudson who helped Stevens decide who to cast by proposing Elizabeth Taylor to the director as an alternative when he could not get Grace Kelly.

James Dean as Jett Rink
To co-star as Jett Rink, Stevens wanted to hire Robert Mitchum, but conflicting production dates with another project unabled him to take the role. Stevens then considered Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Nick Adams, Van Heflin, Montgomery Clift, Alan Ladd (whose wife and agent, Sue Carol, advised him against accepting the second male lead) and even Richard Burton, who turned it down because "I just don't seem to drawl in the right places." 

 At the same time, James Dean, who was filming Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for Warner Bros., happened to befriend one of Giant's scriptwriters, Fred Guiol, who penned the screenplay in collaboration with Ivan Moffat. According to Stevens, Dean would often go by his office while the script was being finalized and start performing tricks with a rope, clearly interested in taking on the role of Jett. In Stevens's opinion, Dean's personality, size and style did not fit the part of Rink, a poor Texas ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes an autocratic millionaire like Howard Hughes, "[but] this guy was fascinating [...] Freddie and I said, 'What would happen if he played this part? He's such a brilliant chap.' And so we engaged him."

Filming the opening scenes in Virginia
After the initial shoot in Hollywood in May 1955, the Giant company moved to Marfa, Texas for location filming. The Benedicts' Second Empire Victorian mansion, designed by Boris Leven and built at the Warner Bros. prop department, was shipped from California on a flat car, then assembled and lashed with cables to four telephone poles that kept it anchored. The oil derricks seen in the film were also constructed in Hollywood and transported to the Texas production site. The small town of Valentine, Texas served as the film's Mexican village, while Charlottesville, Virginia was the location of Leslie's Maryland family home (in Ferber's original novel, Leslie's hometown is actually Virginia).

Although Taylor and Stevens enjoyed a pleasant working relationship while making of A Place in the Sun, they found themselves arguing constantly during the filming of Giant. Most of their fights originated from his practice of demanding multiple takes without explaing why or offering additional instructions to the actors. Taylor was also often exposed to Stevens's "professional ruthlessness. He showed her no tender mercies in getting what he wanted, beginning by unstelling her in order to break her will and make her more malleable."

Stevens also had a hard time directing Dean, whose mannerisms, such as moving his head from side to side or hopping while walking, annoyed the director. The two quarreled frequently and at one point Dean even went on strike for a few days. Dean refused to undergo a lenghty make-up process for his later scenes in  Giant, only allowing them to gray his temples and put a few lines on his forehead, and especially objected to being kept waiting for his scenes. After being called to the set three days in a row without being used at all, he simply skipped his next call. When Stevens confronted him, he argued that with the amount of preparation he did to create Jett's emotional life, it was exhausting to be kept waiting that long. Although not entirely sympathetic to the Method style of acting that Dean had learned at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in New York, Stevens tried to keep him on a more reasonable schedule after that.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth having fun on the set
During the making of Giant, Taylor became close friends with Hudson, who called her "The most beautiful woman I've ever seen. That's outward beauty, too." While everybody else on the cast and crew was lodged at Marfa's only hotel, they stayed in rented houses across from each other. It was on one of those houses that one night they invented the chocolate martini by mixing vodka and Kahlua chocolate liqueur. They thought it tasted terrific and they had made "a great contribution to society" until they both started suffering from indigestion. Hudson and Taylor remained close after Giant, although they did not work together until Guy Hamilton's The Mirror That Crack'd (1980), where they again played husband and wife. Following Hudson's death from an AIDS-related illness in 1985, Taylor became very active in raising awareness and funding for HIV/AIDS research, which led to her receiving the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993.

Taylor also forged a close bond with Dean, who would often confide his secrets to her. Unlike Hudson, however, he rarely acknowledged their closeness on the set, being "cold, rude and indifferent" to Taylor after a night of baring his soul to her. "We would sometimes sit up until three in the morning," Taylor later recalled, "and he would tell me about his past, his mother, his minister, his loves, and the next day he would just look straight through me as if he'd given away or revealed too much of himself. It would take... maybe a couple of days before we'd be back on friendship terms. He was very afraid to give of himself."

Mercedes McCambridge and James Dean
Hudson and Dean, on the other hand, did not get along during the making of Giant. Reportedly, each had little respect for the other's approach to acting and Hudson resented Dean's unprofessional behavior, particularly the fact that the 24-year-old actor frequently arrived late to the set. "I didn't like him personally," Hudson said years later. "But that didn't matter. Jimmy was certainly effective in the role, especially in the younger part."

In contrast, Dean developed a close friendship with Merceces McCambridge, who played Luz Benedict, as they spent many long hours together in between shooting their various scenes. McCambridge later remembered Dean as a "rebellious, sensitive and unconventional young man," one completely different from the more self-centered, traditional "Hollywood juveniles" that she had met ever since entering the film industry in 1949. The two enjoyed drinking hard liquor, talking about politics, show business and the other members of the cast and crew. While shooting in Marfa, they often said something that became a "catchphrase" between the two of them and was frequently repeated during their conversations. "If you weren't here," McCambridge and Dean reportedly said to each other almost daily, "I would kill myself."

Filming in Marfa, Texas
Shooting in Texas during the summer was far from comfortable, with temperatures rising as high as 120º F (39º C) in the shade. In fact, the heat was so great that one day McCambridge's make-up melted into her skin, creating a serious infection that left her neck scarred. Instead of discourage local passersby from stopping to have a look at the moviemaking process, Stevens invited them to work as extras, most of which appear in the film's barbecue scene. During breaks in the filming, Dean asked the local cowboys to teach him how to handle a lariat and his hat until he could act as if he had been working with them his entire life. When the Giant company returned to Hollywood, the imposing three-sided façade of the Benedicts' Victorian house was left behind in the barren Marfa landscape, where parts of it still stand today. For a period of time, it was used by locals to store grain.  

On September 27, 1955, the day he completed his last scene on Giant, Dean had a brand new silver Porsche 550 Spyder delivered to the set at the end of his work day. Apparently, McCambridge was the first person to ride in it with him. When he accelarated across the Warner Bros. lot to drive her to her dressing room, the studio police barred him from speeding there. On September 30, while Stevens, the stars and the leading crew members were watching the daily rushes for the film, the director received a telephone call announcing that Dean had been killed in a tragic car accident that afternoon, on his way to race in Salinas, California.

Dean and Taylor between takes
Taylor, who had suffered from several health problems during production, was devastated by Dean's death. Stevens forced her to report for work the following morning to pick up the reaction shots of a scene she had done with Dean just a few days before. She was deeply grief-stricken and spent most of her time between takes sobbing hysterically. On her last day of work on Giant, she collapsed with stomach cramps and was immediately rushed to the hospital. After treatment for a twisted colon, she had to return to the studio to finish the scene.

Stevens spend almost a year on post-production work for Giant, a period marked by constant battles with Warner Bros. over the film's lenght. He bluntly refused to cut the picture, leaving it at 201 minutes, 37 minutes shorter than Gone with the Wind (1939). On October 10, 1956, a year after shooting had been completed, Giant finally had its world premiere at the Roxy Theatre in New York. The following night, it opened at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and then, one night later, in movie houses across Texas. The film cost Warners over $5 million to make, but it turned in more than $14 million, making Giant their highest-grossing picture to that date. 

Critics and industry peers applauded Giant as much as the public did. While lamenting its overlong running time, Variety wrote that the film "is also, for the most part, an excellent film which registers strongly on all levels, whether it's in its breathtaking panoramic shots of the dusty Texas plains; the personal, dramatic impact of the story itself, or the resounding message it has to impart." For his part, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times considered that three hours and seventeen minutes is "a heap of time to go on about Texas, but Mr. Stevens has made a heap of a film [...] Giant, for all its complexity, is a strong contender for the year's top-film award." Crowther also praised the film's "exceptionally well-chosen cast," especially James Dean, who he thought played his role "with a stylized spookiness a sly sort of off-beat languor and slur of language that concentrates spite. This is a haunting capstone to the brief career of Mr. Dean."

The premiere of Giant at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood

At the 29th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1957, George Stevens won the Oscar for Best Director and the film received nine additional nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Rock Hudson, James Dean); Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge); Best Art Director Set Decoration, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Damatic and Comedy Picture; and Best Adapted Screenplay. Both Hudson and Dean lost to Yul Brynner for his performance in Walter Lang's The King and I (1956), while McCambridge lost to Dorothy Malone for her role in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956). The coveted Best Picture award that year went to Around the World in 80 Days (1956), whose renowned produder, Mike Todd, had married Elizabeth Taylor a month before the Oscar ceremony.

Edna Farber's Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race and History by J. E. Smyth (2010) | Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film by Cindy De La Hoz (2012) | Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor by Alexander Walker () | Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss (2004) | Mercedes McCambridge: A Biography and Career Record by Ron Lackmann (2005) | Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sarah Davidson (1986) | 
TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther | Variety review


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