Producer and Academy Award winning director, George Steven’s western epic, Giant, could not have been more aptly named. Released in 1956, the film had an incredible star-studded cast, which included Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. Grace Kelly was originally considered for the role of Leslie Benedict, which eventually went to the then 23 year old Elizabeth Taylor. Though Kelly would have undoubtedly executed a solid performance, once you see Taylor in the movie, you can no longer imagine anyone else taking on that role.
Giant was a commercial and artistic success, garnering many Academy Award nominations. However, what makes this film even more incredible is that it dares to put the spotlight on racial discrimination and prejudice. The early and mid 1950’s were the Eisenhower years. People were still basking in the victory of World War II and the Baby Boomer generation was born. Social issues, such as racial discrimination, were not at the forefront even though prejudice was just as prevalent then as it is now. Giant, which is based on Edna Ferber’s novel of that name, is a film that brings to light some ugly truths about American history, but it also offers hope. In the midst of hate and prejudice there are always individuals who have the courage to challenge the old ways of thinking.
Rock Hudson, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs during the 1950’s, plays Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. Standing 6’5”, Hudson is a formidable presence playing the Texan rancher who desperately holds onto tradition and the old ways of life. However, when Bick meets and falls in love with Leslie (Taylor), he quickly finds himself torn between his ideals and the reality that is quite literally changing the landscape of his home. Leslie is as beautiful as she is intelligent and feisty. When she first meets Bick and hears about Reata, his ranch and home, she is enchanted and cannot wait to leave her life behind in Maryland. Yet, when she finally arrives at Reata, which is a large Victorian homestead in the middle of the dusty plains, she feels out of place. Bick makes it clear that her job is to be a good little wife and stay out of his ranching business and leave all the decisions of his household to his sister, Luz, played by Mercedes McCambridge. At first, Leslie seems completely overwhelmed, and, to add to her challenges, she becomes caught in a love triangle with Bick’s handyman, Jett Rink (James Dean). Leslie is a relatable protagonist. It takes her a while to find her voice and reclaim her independence. She refuses to conform, and she speaks out against the unfair treatment of Mexican Americans, who are socially segregated and forced to live in squalor. Despite the fact that Bick and the rest of that community try to undermine Leslie at every turn, she never gives up and eventually, her defiance against antiquated social conventions sow the seeds for change.
Giant shows the huge social, political, and economic changes that reshaped Texas. When Jett Rink discovers oil on his property, the barren dusty plains of Texas are nearly transformed over night with oil rigs that continue as far as the eye can see. The racial disparity is another theme that runs throughout the film. Though justice and equality are never quite within reach, the last few scenes in the movie send a demonstrative message that social changes are going to continue because they have to. Reata will never be the same, and Bick spends the majority of the film fighting to keep the old traditions.
Despite the fact that Giant is over two hours long, the movie moves quickly. So much happens in each scene and the story encompasses so many characters that the film never loses its momentum. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Leslie Benedict is nothing short of genius. Keep in mind, she was only in her early twenties when she took this role and yet, even as her character ages, Taylor remains convincing. In fact, Carol Baker, who played Luz, the youngest daughter of Leslie and Bick, was actually a year older than Taylor when the movie was filmed. However, Taylor’s ability to portray nurturing and maternal love compensates for her youth. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the make up used in the film was skillfully applied to all the characters that aged in the film. Hudson and Dean are equally solid in their performances. Hudson always manages to be likeable, even when his character is being stubborn. Sadly, Giant was Dean’s last film before his fatal car accident in 1955.
Two other young actors that were in Giant, who would go on to having successful careers were Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. Sal Mineo plays Angel Obergon, the Hispanic child Leslie rescues near the beginning of the film. Mineo was already a highly recognized figure in Hollywood since his role as John “Plato” Crawford in Rebel Without A Cause. During the 1950’s Mineo’s career was on fire, but as he transitioned from teenage heartthrob to adult performer he stopped getting the roles. He was always a great actor, but his boyish charm and rumors of homosexuality made him a less likely choice for film roles. Unfortunately, during the 1970’s, as his career was starting to make a comeback, Mineo was stabbed to death. No one ever figured out the real reason behind his murder, but Mineo’s presence and work in Hollywood will never be forgotten.
Dennis Hopper went on to have a long career in television and film. In the movie Giant, Hopper plays Bick’s son, Jordy. As the only son, he is expected to take over Reata. However, Jordy doesn’t just question the social norms his parents’ generation was taught to follow, he deviates from them by marrying outside of his class and race. He also doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and take control over Reata. Jordy’s character demonstrates that change is inevitable.
For my generation and anyone who was not yet born when this movie was made, watching Giant is like looking at a time capsule. We could say that about a lot of films of course. However, not all old films stand the test of time. Giant offers an incredible perspective on 1950’s cinema. Everything from the style of filming and editing to the story reflects where we were as a society during that time. If Giant were made today, it would hardly be recognized as the same film with high budget special affects and sex scenes. Hopefully, Hollywood will leave this one alone because this film needs no improvement. Giant deserves to be a part of everyone’s movie collection.