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Big picture: All about 'Giant'

by Tavo Amador

Big picture: All about 'Giant'

In "Giant" (St. Martin's Press, $27), Don Graham, professor of English at the University of Texas and scholar of the Lone Star State's "literature, films, and pop culture," argues for the greatness of the 1956 movie. His well-written book is often fascinating, but fails to make a case for George Stevens' slow, well-intentioned film. Its fame is attributable to its stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.

"Giant" was based on Edna Ferber's 1952 novel, which was critical of Texas' macho culture. It showed the impact of oil replacing cattle-ranching, and the terrible treatment of Mexicans by Anglos. These perspectives, shared by Stevens, are in Fred Guiol"s and Ivan Moffat's screenplay, although their script frequently deviates from the novel.

Graham's discussion of the casting of the lead roles is riveting. Top-billed Taylor (1932-2011) was among 31 actresses on a list prepared by Warner Bros. for patrician Leslie Benedict. Stevens wanted Audrey Hepburn, who refused for unknown reasons. His second choice was MGM's Grace Kelly, but Metro refused to lend her. Taylor, who had given a superb performance in Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1951), campaigned for the part, with home studio MGM's blessing. Despite Ferber's objections, she became Leslie.

Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, William Holden, and Robert Mitchum were all eager to play Bick Benedict, but none were the right age. Stevens felt it was easier to make an actor look older than to make him look younger. Ferber wanted Burt Lancaster, who was never considered. Eventually, Hudson (1925-85), a classic Hollywood hunk rapidly becoming a big star, got the part. He was the right age, and at 6'5" the right size.

Stevens' first choice for Jett Rink, the third lead, was Alan Ladd. Ladd had triumphed in Stevens' western "Shane" (1953), and wanted to work for him again. Despite his being 42, Stevens felt that Hollywood magic would make the 5'6" actor look young enough for the early scenes. Ladd, however, in what he later admitted was a significant mistake, refused the part. He felt that playing the second male lead would be a setback. He didn't realize that Stevens would give Bick and Jett equal screentime. Ladd's decision allowed Dean (1931-55) to get the role, even though he was much smaller (5'7") than Ferber described.

In March 1955, Dean's first starring film, Elia Kazan's "East of Eden," opened to acclaim and big business. After bit parts in pictures, many live television shows, and two New York stage successes, Dean was on the verge of mega-stardom. Later in 1955, he played the quintessential 1950s angst-ridden teenager in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause." It, too, earned plaudits and filled theatres.

Dean, deeply troubled, was rude, unkempt, frequently urinated in public, disdained meeting reporters - although he charmed vitriolic gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. His penchant for recklessly riding motorcycles and driving cars would prove fatal. He was contemptuous of Hudson, and initially upset about Taylor - he thought them mere movie stars, not actors.

Graham asserts that Kazan, who didn't like Dean, cleverly manipulated him into giving a superb performance in "Eden." Ray, enthralled by him, allowed Dean to nearly co-direct "Rebel." But Stevens' style was different. He and Dean clashed repeatedly.

Graham sympathetically discusses Hudson's homosexuality, which his gay agent, Henry Willson, worked tirelessly to conceal from the public. Taylor's personal life was also complicated. She had just had her second son by second husband Michael Wilding, but their marriage was floundering. Early in 1957, she married producer Mike Todd.

Dean claimed Hudson tried to seduce him (unlikely) and ridiculed him for being closeted, but Dean obfuscated his many homosexual relationships. He pimped himself to producer Rogers Brackett, who helped Dean professionally and financially. Dean also had homosexual affairs that didn't involve money.

Shooting on location in Marfa, Texas, Stevens' insistence on many re-takes photographed from multiple angles, and delays caused by the stars (especially Dean) put the film over budget. Taylor and Hudson became close friends, however. On location, she and Dean also bonded. The three drank heavily after filming ended, but usually concealed the results when shooting began the next morning.

With just a few minor scenes left to complete, Dean, speeding in his Porsche, was killed in an automobile accident on Sept. 30, 1955. Stevens used a double to finish the movie. An hysterical Taylor was unable to work for several days, despite Stevens' demands that she do so. Dean's premature death ensured his place in the Hollywood Pantheon, and "Giant"'s importance.

"Giant" cleaned up at the box-office and garnered 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor for Hudson and Dean, Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge, who played Bick's butch sister, Luz) and Adapted Screenplay. Only Stevens won.

Hudson's performance is sincere, but the viewer can sense his thinking it through, rather than feeling it. Dean is often excellent, yet frequently mannered, especially as the older Jett. Taylor, on the other hand, is terrific, far better than her co-stars.

Graham laments that the gimmicky "Around the World in 80 Days" won the Best Picture Oscar. He believes Hudson should have won for Best Actor, rather than Yul Brynner in "The King and I." (Has he ever seen Laurence Olivier's "Richard III?") He acknowledges that influential critics like Andrew Sarris and David Thomson dismiss "Giant," although Richard Schickel liked it. Graham feels that Stevens' reputation should be higher than it is.

Graham sometime errs. For example, he writes that Taylor's pre-"Giant" movies "Rhapsody," "Elephant Walk," and "Beau Brummel" were "all forgettable costume dramas." Actually, only the last was a period piece.

Graham discusses how "Giant" reflected Texas' culture, how it may have influenced it, and its decades-long impact on Marfa. But these aren't the reasons it's a famous if seldom-revived movie. Taylor, Hudson, and especially Dean are why people still talk about "Giant." Graham's chapters about them are the best parts of this book, and make compelling reading.

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