20 May 2007 | bkoganbing
The Eyes of Texas
I am of the opinion that it is impossible to make a bad film out of an Edna Ferber book. Her backgrounds are epic and she creates characters who fill the backgrounds that their stories take place.
Such is the case of Giant and the story of Bick Benedict, Leslie Lynnton, and Jett Rink and all the Texans here, native and transplanted. Giant's story begins with Bick Benedict coming to Maryland to buy a prize stallion and in a whirlwind courtship, marrying and bringing back the stallion and it's owner as well who becomes Leslie Lynnton.
Benedict as played by Rock Hudson is co-owner with his sister Mercedes McCambridge of one large piece of Texas real estate named Reata which makes the Ponderosa look like a homestead. 595,000 acres Hudson modestly states to the Lynnton guests at dinner. He's also incurred the jealousy of one of his ranch hands, James Dean as Jett Rink who envies Hudson in all things including his new bride.
Hudson and Dean were both up for Best Actor in 1956 losing to Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I've always felt that this was Elizabeth Taylor's film. Liz showed what she could do in George Stevens's A Place in the Sun and unfortunately she went back to MGM and got a bunch of films that were really beneath her talents. It was George Stevens again who even though he wanted Grace Kelly in the part first, got a great performance out of Elizabeth Taylor. Although she's overawed at first by the Texans and their ways, she warms gradually up to the role of mistress of Reata and brings a touch of compassion and humanity to Reata and its people.
The leading man was also borrowed by Warner Brothers. Rock Hudson got his one and only Oscar nomination for this role. His character of Bick Benedict ages and grows in every way. Maybe because its Rock Hudson playing the part, but I think it's Hudson innate and underrated skill as a player that makes you know there's a latent decency that's eventually going to overcome the bad things he was brought up with.
Of course Giant marks the early tragic farewell of James Dean as player. In one terrible accident that claimed his life James Dean went from rebel actor to eternal legend. Jett Rink was the final piece of his performing career and only a hint of what we could have expected from him. He's a dirt poor ranch hand, as poor as the Mexicans, who mostly work at Reata, but he doesn't identify with them at all. When he strikes it oil rich, he's just put in a position where he can now inflict terrible things on those people he feels superior to.
When film fans talk about Giant they talk about the differences between Hudson and Dean. Hudson starts out rich and prejudiced, Dean is poor and prejudiced. Dean strikes it rich and becomes an oil billionaire, but it's brought him no happiness, just richer surroundings to be miserable in. The difference is that Hudson had Taylor and the children they both had. Their lives together, Taylor's love and devotion and his children's respectful rebellion made him see things differently and grow as a person. If Dean had an Elizabeth Taylor, things might have worked out better for him in a personal sense.
George Stevens won the only Oscar that Giant got that year, for Best Director. The all-star extravaganza Around the World in 80 Days won for Best Picture, though I think Giant has stood the test of time a lot better. Then again Stevens had an Edna Ferber epic story to work from and as I said before, you can't ever go wrong with one of her stories.