1956, 201 min.
Directed by George Stevens
"You all think that the glory happened here in the East, don't you, with Valley Forge and Bunker Hill? Do you know about San Jacinto? Have you heard about the Alamo?"
-Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson)
I'll come clean. I have always dreaded watching Giant. Not for any concerns over quality (it is my mother's favorite movie after all, and momma don't like crap), but because of the running time. I'm not the athletic type, so to me a marathon is frightening. For years, I've had ample opportunities to watch it, but just was unable (or more likely, unwilling) to set aside the time for it. Yay for the Summer Series, then. It gave me the perfect chance to finally watch this classic. In a theatrical exhibition, at that. Tuesday evening, then, was like a personal judgment day. I had perceived it as a daunting task as large as the lone star state itself.
As I drove past the theatre to park the car, I noticed many people out front. The Paramount always seems to have a healthy crowd attending these films in the Summer Series, but I was not prepared for the number of people I found in attendance on Tuesday's presentation of Giant. Let me, repeat, it was a Tuesday. These are the kinds of crowds I'm used to seeing on weekends, and rivaled the madhouse I encountered when I tried to see Toy Story 3 at the Imax Bob Bullock theater. If so many other enthusiastic moviegoers were willing to tackle the four hour show, then so was I. I'm sure it was going to be a great experience for all. Hmmm. Well, perhaps not for one guy. Someone foolishly parked right in front of the theatre, and was being towed away as I arrived. Whooops. Someone's going to have some tough phone calls to make at 11 pm.
Giant is a movie that seems tailor made for superlatives. It's a huge movie, an epic movie, a thorough movie that follows decades in the life of a wealthy Benedict family, who own thousands of square miles of ranch land called "Reata" and have built themselves an empire. The trials and tribulations of the Benedicts are all documented from the 1920s well into the post-World War II era. Not a particular subtle movie; it often feels like a giant soap opera, but it is captivating to watch. The film never drags or feels like a three-hour plus movie. Thankfully, it also never merely resembles a long episode of "Dallas."
Because of its inherent "soap opera" feel, I was surprised to find many great performances in the movie. The situations could easily have led to some melodramatic acting. Luckily for the audience, the cast never gets swept away by the grandiose events of the screenplay. The film is anchored by the Benedict couple, played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.
The film begins with Jordan "Bick" Benedict Jr. meeting Maryland socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) and taking her as his bride. They go back to his ranch and, after a period of adjustment and quick tragedy, they begin to make a life on Reata. Note I didn't say they begin a life together; that's not a mistake. In fact, the first several years are probably amongst the hardest for the young couple. Sexism and machismo prevent Leslie from properly settling into her new home, and her efforts to help are blocked at nearly every turn. Even her efforts to help the Mexican-American ranch hands are rebuffed by Bick, admonishing her for paying too much attention to "those people." Once their own children enter the picture, Bick makes it clear his goals and aspirations for the next generation are more important than whatever ideals Leslie has.
Casting of this couple seems perfect for the story told. Rock Hudson as Benedict is larger than life, and quite frankly often looks like Superman on the screen. Elizabeth Taylor is his socialite bride, with sensibilities much different than those found in the Lone Star state. Now, I've seen stills and photographs of young Taylor, but I had never actually seen her in any of her early films. My images of her are from the 1980s, so seeing her in Giant was a revelation. She was breathtakingly beautiful, and incredibly tiny. While never a meek character, I found Taylor's size to be an important facet to her role. She seemed dwarfed by the scale of everything on the ranch, and helped emphasize what a different world she was living in. After all, you know what they say about Texas...
And like that famous phrase, everything is bigger in this picture, especially the cast. There are so many interesting characters, both big and small, that I imagine movie programs for the film in 1956 came with a helpful family tree (or least should have). Curious that with a 3.5 hour runtime, I would have liked to see more of certain characters. While all served their purpose in the film by placing their fingerprints on the Benedict clan, you want to learn so much more about all these people. Life events often remove important people from your life far too soon, and that is one of the poignant lessons Giant reminds us of. Thankfully there are some clear audience favorites who persevere throughout the decades, like Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills). Whenever he appeared, I smiled as he was always present to add an appropriate smart remark with a drink in hand.
Giant is also famous for being the final film of James Dean's brief film career. As Jett Rink, Dean adds to the tension as a local ranch hand who has been bequeathed a tiny part of Reata and harbors a grudge against Bick. The role is an interesting one for Dean, as it is showy without providing the character much substance. He drawls his way through the first half of the movie and then stumbles and drinks his way through the second.
By stubbornly holding out against Benedict's bids to purchase back the land, Rink just ambles through the first 90 minutes of the picture as a thorn in Bick's side. Flirting with Leslie openly, he is nevertheless instrumental in exposing Mrs. Benedict to the plight of Reata's pillars, the migrant workers. Rink in the first half is a rascal of sorts, but endearing because he does long to better himself and become sophisticated. The fact he has James Dean's looks probably doesn't hurt either.
Well, wouldn't you know it, but Rink strikes oil on his tiny piece of land. Quickly becoming an oil baron, he becomes a living example of how a segment of "the new rich" sprouted out of the Texas soil. With this wealth, Rink gets an upgrade to a genuine rival of Benedict's. Yet Jett rapidly loses his charm, and descends into an eccentric and creepy sort of fellow. These scenes of older Rink reminded me of Leonardo's Di Caprio's depiction of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, so much that I pondered how much Leo derived from Dean's performance here. Heck, after a while, I expected Jett Rink to repeatedly ask to "show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints..." Ultimately, his character is reminiscent of the character of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums. He so desperately wants to be a part of the Benedicts clan, and there are no depths he won't succumb to to try and carve a place for himself in the mythos he perceived at Reata.
Giant's screenplay didn't seem to give him an awful lot to work with, so it's a testament to Dean's skills that we followed the character as closely as we did. Tragic to have lost a magnetic actor so young; we will never really see what his career would have held, since the best was clearly yet to come.
Despite it's "soapish" feel, I was fascinated by the stories and the melodrama, especially once the Benedict children came of ages and started to make their own life-changing decisions. As was the rest if the audience, since many laughs and groans indicated our own levels of approval for the lives of the new young Benedicts. It was a fun and receptive crowd at the theatre that night, and reminded me that I was in Austin. When one character expressed her desire to go to Texas Tech, the boos came loud and fast at the screen, and we all had a large chuckle immediately afterward.
As the film progressed, I began to wonder how many of this audience's reactions were uniquely Texan. I imagine the film plays very differently here in this state than it does throughout the rest of the country. The explanation of things we take for granted early in the film, like cookouts and barbecue, made me giggle and realize how much Texan culture I took for granted.
What resonated strongest with me is the film's subplot about race relations with the Mexican-American culture, in the name of society's progress and acceptance of different people. Texas has flown six different national flags over its land through the centuries, and it's role as a melting pot of cultures can be seen as a microcosm of America's same role. The blurring of the cultural lines is apparent in this movie, and is appreciated in the state in a much different way from others. It certainly isn't shared by Arizona, that's for sure.
After years resisting change and pouting about his family's legacy, Bick Benedict finally relents to the winds of progress (not that he had much of a choice). The last shot of the film is a powerful and understated one. The next generation of Benedicts are standing side-by-side in Bick's living room, watching him with very different but eager faces. Through the decisions of his children and the appearance of grandchildren, Bick finally accepts the fact that his best-laid plans were futile. That life can't be wrangled and corralled like a herd of cattle (even if he doesn't know he's accepted it). Life isn't Bick's story, or Leslie's story or Jett's story, the story belongs to all of us. Our goal for our children is to provide, but change is as inevitable as the shifting Texas weather. Change is eternal, and it can be equally subtle or giant.