Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a gritty ranch hand who makes it big with black gold, a feud between two families, and the emptiness of wealth in making a man complete.
No one drinks anyone else’s milkshake, but a bunch of wine bottles get smashed. So do a lot of lives.
Directed by: George Stevens
Starring: James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Dennis Hopper, Carroll Baker, Mercedes McCambridge
The 80th anniversary of James Dean’s birthday is two days away (on the 8th), and I wouldn’t be surprised if modern audiences know absolutely nothing about him. But he’s an icon, a legend, a name that will live in notoriety for all time, you say. That’s all well and good, but if audiences have never seen Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden or Giant, then they don’t really know his skill. They can only repeat the name and say, “didn’t he die young or something?”
The idea of him growing old is something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Like the fake interview with Jimi Hendrix created for Guitar World a few years ago, it’s fascinating to think of our fallen artists surviving well into banal normalcy. What would have happened if James Dean had lived? His career was already off to a stellar start, and if he’d survived past 24, it seems likely that he would have continued creating great work in the following years. Could we have seen James Dean instead of Anthony Perkins in Psycho? Would he have been part of Ocean’s 11? Would his career remain vibrant into the 70s? Would he start playing comedic father figures in the 1980s? Could he have played the jerk from the EPA making the Ghostbusters turn off their ghost trap? Could he have been in Die Hard With a Vengeance instead of Jeremy Irons?
All of this is predicated upon him not dying in that fatal car crash, but none of it is a far stretch. Had he stayed in the game, Dean would have taken on more roles. He would have been in that talent pool always striving to get that next gig, and if he chose to keep steadily working into our time, we might have seen James Dean nominated for Best Actor for Venus instead of Peter O’Toole.
Released after his death, Giant is a master work in acting from a star much older in talent than in years. It tells the story of Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a wealthy rancher with over half a million acres of land. Benedict travels to Maryland for a horse and finds a bride alongside it in Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) who he brings home to the sprawling emptiness and bustle of Texas. The ranch is run by Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge giving a performance covered in salt and spit), and the main ranch hand is a brooding Jett (played by James Dean (who never seems to open his eyes)).
The result is a first act that takes an hour to unfold, but director George Stevens is a master at drawing out the scenes, getting challenging performances from his actors, and giving the scenery its due. There’s nothing going to waste here because it’s the story of a lifetime rivalry between two men. Bick is a cocky yet awkward presence who is incredibly sensitive about Texas, treats his Mexican hired help like cattle, and has no problem making the occasional shady business deal.
Jett doesn’t fair much better, even if he earns some initial sympathies for being the target of Bick’s wrath. He’s a dusty ranch hand that doesn’t have much rattling around in his head, but Luz has a soft spot for him. When she dies (after being tossed off of Leslie’s horse for spurring it too harshly), Jett inherits a bit of the Benedict acreage and sets it up for himself.
Then, he finds oil.
The moral ambiguity of Giant is apparent from the beginning and it never becomes clearer through to the end. It’s a little surprising that Stevens, the director who gave us the sweet comedy of The More The Merrier could tap into the mind of David Lean to deliver what amounts to Lawrence of Marfa, Texas. Rock Hudson might give the only performance of his career where he’s a racist, sister-whipped millionaire with massive insecurities. James Dean delivers the angst his early (and only) performances were known for, and Elizabeth Taylor stands out against type as sweet but tormented (and thankfully non-racist).
Plus, even though it’s a movie focused on the men, Leslie is the catalyst for almost everything. She changed Bick’s life by coming into it, she riles Luz into jealousy which directly causes her death, she discovers oil for Jett simply by walking on his land. She’s compassionate (treating her Mexican employees with a kindness they don’t seem to know from anyone else), but she becomes hearty and hardened from facing the challenge of Texas head on. She also might be the only truly likable character in the whole flick.
What results is the proto-type for There Will Be Blood. The oil aspect is the same, the greed is the same, the reality of life never working out quite the way you want it to is the same. Even though Dean’s Jett is no preacher, he still maintains the sort of dumb naivete that Paul Sunday has when dreaming of a bigger church and higher stature. He’s a simpleton who falls into money and doesn’t know what to do with it. He certainly doesn’t know how to use it to make himself happy. Unless you count dating the much-younger daughter of his enemy. Which, come to think of it, totally counts.
As Jett makes his life about sparring with the man he thinks he’s bested, the rest of his world becomes hollow. Here is where Dean was at his best. Even in the happiest of moments, Dean’s smile could make it seem like the earth was about to split in two and the sea was about to catch fire. He took those painful emotions of his characters (especially Jett) and turned them into physical manifestations. On the outside, he may have just fought with a woman he used to secretly pine for, but on the inside, a tiny torturer was putting his guts on the rack.
That’s what he needs to be known for. Not that he died early, but that he made art while he was young and alive. There’s no telling what might have happened if he’d survived – and that includes the possibility of his career fading just as fast as it began, but I like to think he would have made his mark and continued thriving in a time where movies were about to change forever.
In this alternate universe, I like to think that there are many other movies as great as Giant out there with Dean’s stamp on them, and that a few days from now, he’d be blowing out 70 candles on a birthday cake shaped like Texas.
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