Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Giant (1956) "Gigante"

Director: George Stevens
Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Judith Evelyn


Taken from the novel by Edna Ferber, whose also bequeathed the screen Show Boat and Cimarron, Giant certainly lives up to its name. It was Dean's last film, playing Jet Rink, disaffected field hand turned oil millionaire. But it's a film packed with other big names too: Hudson, Taylor, Hopper, Carol Baker, Mineo and McCambridge all appear in a larger than life melodrama set over several decades. The film manages to pack in some daring themes too: racial and social intolerance chief amongst them. In Show Boat, Ferber included miscegenation among the plot elements. Here it returns, as a Benedict mixed marriage faces prejudice, while Rink's casual racism is also an issue. Finally, there's a strong central female character, played by Taylor, who at one point has the audacity to lecture her men folk on treating her and her kind like a child - an unexpected moment in conservative American cinema, to say the least. Although having been criticised for stodginess (Andrew Sarris once wrote that the director's technique "once looked almost like an official style for national epics.") Stevens' grip on the film is undeniably impressive, managing some splendid set ups. Only occasionally does one feel that a little judicious trimming would have tightened the narrative, notably in some of the dialogue scenes between the married Benedicts, which, though well written, drag on a little too long. Today one is reminded of the work of Douglas Sirk, another director of the time specialising in big, colour melodrama, also frequently starring Rock Hudson. The difference is that Sirk injects his less grandiose projects with healthy degrees of coded irony, their subversive elements making his films seem all the more modern today. Giant, for all its aforementioned achievements, seems stuck in the 1950s, its radical edge insincere. In Sirk's Written On The Wind for instance, which also deals with oil millionaires, acquisition and wealth is associated with sexual neurosis, in a way entirely absent here. In fact Benedict's massive, casual wealth and ownership is presented as something healthy and natural, its effects only distorting personality when granted to the 'wrong' people (Rink). Stevens is content to show Benedict's huge mansion as a successful center of a cattle empire, a social hub useful and essential. None of Benedict's possessions come to seem hollow or trivial; in fact there is no criticism of his lifestyle at all, overtly or otherwise, apart from some sexual politicking by his feisty young wife. Miscegenation appears as a topic in Sirk's Imitation of Life too, but with none of the tokenism which one suspects here. In Stevens' work, Mrs Benedict (Elsa Cárdenas) sadly speaks few significant words throughout - except to be grateful to her white benefactors, or in running off for their aid. Despite claims on our sympathies, she remains powerless. Of course, one might go for a long time wishing Giant was the film it is not, as ultimately Stevens views melodrama differently. The finest scenes in his film are those in the first half, where content is most closely married to purpose, and where the trappings of privilege and wealth are still fresh enough to be inspiring. For instance, both the eccentric romancing of Benedict and his headstrong wife to be, and the jealousy of Luz at the new member of the household, are excellently done. Add to this the appearance of Jet Rink, the outsider to the community unexpectedly set to strike it rich, and there is much to enjoy here in scenes revealing emotions frequently as broad and as grand as the country in which they are set. Unfortunately as Rink grows older, so the film grows progressively less interesting and convincing with him. Dean's forte was as misunderstood teenager, his style amplifying the associated angst to the nth degree. The mumbling and recalcitrant characteristics of his method acting ably reflects back an archetypal youthful alienation. But when trying the same trick as a middle aged Rink, these characteristics are not compatible with a successful businessman, who plainly needs to have 'grown up' to sustain a commercial empire. The result is that the older Rink seems increasingly all at sea, his character collapsing under the weight of its inappropriate quirks, like a table at the conference hall. As the ageing Benedict. Hudson does a reasonable job, but it's a role which plainly would have suited an actor with greater range, say Spencer Tracy, bringing increasing gravitas, even a sense of tragedy, to his position as the years roll on. Hudson is always watchable, does his best, but still seems the same age throughout, albeit with padded gut and white hair. And with due deference to the efforts of Dennis Hopper too, with hindsight one would rather have seen Sal Mineo given the important role of sensitive younger son, especially as he had worked so well earlier with Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Most disastrous of all for Giant's final impression are the closing scenes, a bathetic close that clearly shows a project running out of creative steam. A now contented and platitudinous Benedict couple, staring at their two grandchildren, stared at by livestock, ends up being embarrassing. It's not the moving and symbolic conclusion to a grand family saga the makers undoubtedly intended. Once again, Sirk does it better: at the close of All That Heaven Allows handyman-gardener Hudson has a picture-postcard deer too, installed in his back garden. But it's an animal whose appearance owes less to a bogus harmony than to Sirk's sly dig at emotional artificiality, a Christmas card confection of smugness made manifest. Stevens' work remains Sunday matinée material today, and modern viewers will find much to enjoy in its glossy production values and the range of acting ability on display. But the feeling is that it remains overrated, a lumbering beast whose best time has been and gone, a reminder that dinosaurs were giant too..

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