Dir. George Stevens. Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean
In recent television dramas, much has been made of the inclination towards male antiheroes at the expense of virtually any other type of protagonist. Since the form hit its heights with Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, it’s become fashionable to simply give us a bad guy at the head of the production and tell us to root for him, self-indulgently wallowing in whatever evil seems most likely to jump the ratings. I’m personally a little tired of antiheroes – it’s no longer novel that men are capable of both good and bad deeds – which is what makes Giant an unexpected pleasure. Neither Bick Benedict (Hudson) nor Jett Rink (Dean) is a good man. Giant does not rub our noses in it, even though their flaws move an enormous picture forward. Bick is old fashioned and paternalistic, racist and implacable. Jett is devious and underhanded, never above a cheap shot. They are simply bad people. Like fruits and vegetables, age spoils them; the older they get, the more rot and mold there is to be cut away from them to get at the little left which is worth having.
At first we think we’ll like Jett, seeing as he’s the underdog, a hired hand constantly dodging termination. Jett drives Leslie (Taylor) back to Reata one day, and they get on the topic of the property itself. Reata is nearly 600,000 acres of land belonging to one man – somewhere, Tom Joad just choked on his own tongue – who has positively regnal feelings about the place. (One might could blame him, but he does rule an area a little smaller than Luxembourg, so maybe it makes sense.) Leslie says something to the effect of “the Benedicts bought the land,” and Jett’s response is that the land cost five cents an acre when they bought it. The message is clear enough: there’s nothing special about the Benedict family other than the land they stumbled into. The subtext is less clear to Leslie, perhaps, even if it’s as obvious to us as Jett’s class argument. If his great-grandfather had paid five cents an acre for this enormous piece of land, then Jett might have gone to Maryland and come back with Leslie himself. Jett is likewise embittered by the chance success that the Benedicts have had, and have used to lord over an absurdly sized parcel of land. When Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), is killed after being thrown from a horse, she leaves Jett a little bit of land in a corner of Reata. The scene in which Bick and his cronies try to convince Jett to sell the land back for twice what it’s worth is drawn out because they don’t know what we do. Jett has no intention to sell that land; that land is like a long-withheld birthright, a chance for him to prove his worth to the people who have looked down on him, and his shambling, smiling rejection is mud in Bick’s eye. But Jett makes it hard for us to like him the longer the movie goes on. He descends into a perpetual alcoholic stupor. He opens an airport and adjoining hotel in his honor, but we learn that the remorselessness of its segregationist heart – Bick’s daughter-in-law, Juana (Elsa Cardenas), is refused service at a beauty parlor on Jett’s standing orders – is one with its owner. Twice he strikes a Benedict who is being restrained from striking him for giving some offense. In his final scenes, Jett is somewhere between “mute” and “incoherent.” He is the same man he was twenty-five years ago, when he was first smitten by Leslie in much the same way Bick was, and his motivations remain much the same. He is unable to grow in any meaningful way, and so the last shot of Jett we get – and, incidentally, the last shot of James Dean’s career – ends with the man all but face down on the floor, sick with liquor, surrounded by the ruins of a party he threw for himself.
Strangely, we find ourselves changing our opinions on Bick because Bick, at least, has some capacity for personal growth. (How much of it is actually his ability is a question we’ll discuss later.) Bick is laid low by his first sight of Leslie, which I imagine many moviegoers in the ’50s could empathize with, but he’s talking to her father while it happens. “Beautiful animal” is the phrase he drops in reference to the horse she’s riding, although we know full well which animal he has in mind. It’s a telling moment for a man who may not be full Neanderthal, the way Leslie characterizes him in a heated moment, but not merely because “young woman” and “animal” are conflated. The horse that Bick has come up to Maryland to buy – the one Leslie is riding, and the one that will kill Luz not long after – is famously tricky to ride. “War Winds” is an excellent specimen, but he is also temperamental and difficult. Bick’s intention is presumably to put War Winds out to stud, but he and his family continue to ride the horse anyway. In the same way that he sees himself as the right man to tame War Winds, he believes himself equally capable of taming Leslie. Their first real conversation together doesn’t end well. Leslie is as taken with Bick as he is with her, and so she stays up all night reading about Texas in the hopes of getting to know the guest a little better. Her first takeaway from the history is, for someone without much prior grasp of the material, pretty darn good. We sort of stole Texas from Mexico, didn’t we, Mr. Benedict? she says. Bick is aghast, which turns rapidly to piqued. We Texans have glory in our past, too, he says; there’s more history after Bunker Hill. It’s a tense little argument to have over breakfast, but the quarrel doesn’t change their feelings. Leslie leaves. Bick follows. Leslie’s dad follows them, trying to get Bick to the train station before it leaves; he fails, and the next time we see Bick and Leslie, they’re sharing a compartment in their pajamas. (I was amazed. I didn’t think you could get away with a scene like that in 1956.)
Bick doesn’t improve quickly, and every one of his flaws is highlighted by his more evolved wife. He and his buddies start talking politics and business after dinner one night, and Leslie intends to be included. Everyone else in the room, including her husband, tries to get her to go sit with the ladies at the other end of the room. Taylor showcases the kind of caustic wit that she’d make famous a decade later in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when she calls to the other women: “Set up my spinning wheel, girls!” (The fight that continues late into the night ends in a draw, more or less. Leslie apologizes for the caveman remark but not the thrust of her argument, while Bick’s rebuttal is that she needs to learn to behave herself and act like the other Texans.) No element of Bick’s perfidy is more shocking than the state of the small village where many of his Mexican-American workers live. It’s a series of shanties, busted plywood, dirt floors, and pestilence. Leslie is appalled – it must be one heck of a realization to figure out that your rich husband doesn’t have the empathy to help his employees live in the 20th Century – but not half so much as we are when we hear Bick try to keep her from sending a doctor to care for a badly ill infant. He’s our doctor, Bick says. He don’t tend to them. It’s incredible that Leslie doesn’t slap him in that moment; safe in his tower, Bick is ready to let a baby die for some supremacist principle which he cannot fully give voice to. In the years to come, most of those flaws are still front and center. He still sees people of color as less than human. He still intends to dominate his family and his family’s affairs. He still sees the world through his patriarchal lens and his holdings as subject to practically feudal primogeniture.
In Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, released five years before Giant, Elizabeth Taylor plays an adornment. Montgomery Clift is the one who counts in that movie, and Taylor plays little more than a symbol of wealth/beauty for him to aspire to and act upon. It’s an incredible waste of her ability. Despite the fact that in some ways she appears to be much the same in Giant – just a foil for Bick and Jett, just a cow for two bulls to fight over – there’s much more to Leslie than simply being a prize. For more than half of the movie, Leslie is the sole moral authority we have. Bick leaves his employees to rot; Leslie expresses her gratitude and tries to ensure that they receive a modicum of care. The Benedicts try to act as if nothing’s changed about Reata once Leslie arrives, but she refuses to be limited to making babies. Bick rambles about having a son take over Reata just as he did and his father did; Leslie takes Jordan’s (Dennis Hopper) side and says that if he wants to be a doctor, then he should go on and be a doctor. Bick scolds Jordan about marrying a Hispanic woman; upon originally hearing the news that her son is married, Leslie beams and embraces her daughter-in-law. Stevens has three visually arresting actors on his hands. Dean’s entire body is made out of Jell-O, where Rock Hudson, for goodness’ sake, got the name from the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River. But their characters fly off the handle because they don’t have any other emotional reaction available for “anger” or “disappointment” or “confusion.” Leslie flies off the handle when something deserves her ire; people who seldom lose their temper are always scarier when that self-control fades away. Leslie is the evolution of Melanie Hamilton; not even Scarlett O’Hara could ever call Leslie “mealy-mouthed,” but Leslie has the same whalebone firmness. She knows what’s right and wrong, and she’s capable of setting the example. Bick doesn’t take to it quite as wholly as Rhett Butler does, but eventually her firmness guides him into making a decent choice.
If there’s a criticism of Giant that stands out, it’s that the melodramatic nature of the movie takes away from its overall power. I’ve never seen a minute of Dallas, so maybe I’m biased in Giant’s favor; I haven’t done the whole “family rich on oil stares at their own double-crossing navel for endless seasons,” so I’m more likely to be open to it. That melodrama is also a key factor in the racial drama of the movie. Giant and The Searchers, released in the same year, are both interested in miscegenation and our reactions to them. The Searchers makes a joke out of Martin’s temporary Indian wife, Look, until she is suddenly killed. Only there does the movie have some sense of pity for her, although certainly Martin must be relieved that he can go back to Laurie without any marital baggage. Giant, all the more impressively because it does so more or less in the contemporary present, looks at Jordan’s marriage to Juana as a positive for both. The two of them share a similar professional background – Juana is a nurse, Jordan a doctor – and they are loving with one another and with their son. There is no question that the two of them can care about one another. One of the film’s strongest moments is their meeting on Christmas Day, when Jordan is obviously as smitten by Juana as Bick was by Leslie more than two decades before. Jordan is not full of similarities to his father, but here are two which are depicted under Bick’s disapproving eye. The first is love at first sight; the second is mulishness. Regardless of the obstacles his father places in his way (or, more importantly, that the 1950s put in his way), Jordan is absolutely rigid in staying the course of his marriage. In that way he is similar to his father, whose marriage to Leslie has been on the rocks almost since the beginning but who never takes any steps to end it.
Bick eventually takes a leaf out of his son’s book, which, tacitly, was Leslie’s all along. At a little diner on the side of the highway, the proprietor is obviously unwilling to serve Juana and her son (Jordan is dealing with a hospital emergency somewhere else), but he puts up with it because she’s with white people. When a Hispanic family comes in, the owner tries forcefully to make them leave, but Bick, one of the great avatars of privilege in the history of American cinema, decides to do the right thing. He tries to intercede for them, which results in a long fistfight between the two men (the guy behind the counter is somehow even bigger than Hudson). Eventually, he is beaten by the proprietor; back at home, looking at their two grandchildren, Leslie tells Bick that she’s never been more proud to be his wife, and to be part of the long Benedict legacy. She doesn’t tell him, and presumably doesn’t have to, that Jett Rink would never have done what he did.
The movie ends with consecutive shots of the white toddler and his half-Hispanic, half-white cousin, both of them standing in the playpen together. It’s not a subtle choice, and I can see how it would be off-putting to some viewers; it’s a seriously preachy moment. But in the 1950s, if a filmmaker wanted to make a point about race, I’m not sure s/he could have done it otherwise. The Searchers is not subtle. Sayonara is not subtle. Imitation of Life is not subtle. The Defiant Ones is really not subtle. It’s not in the character of ’50s American film to cocoon its meaning and hope that the viewer will see a butterfly on the way out of the theater, and I don’t know that it’s fair to expect that it would. Giant may be lengthy and vista-centric like the movie it lost Best Picture to, Around the World in 80 Days, but it has much more in common with Sirk’s melodramas than it does a Ben-Hur or Judgment at Nuremberg. Even the plot details of All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life mash up well enough to get you seventy-five percent of the way to Giant, to say nothing of the open social criticism that those movies invest in. All That Heaven Allows is probably a more visually appealing movie than Giant, even given the great sprawl that Giant indulges in with its depictions of a big house made small by its vast surroundings. But both of them are searing critiques of a certain segment of 1950s society. Where All That Heaven Allows obliterates bourgeois suburban groupthink, Giant points the finger at insular racist politics bolstered up by the great wealthy families of the nation. For whatever reason, I think All That Heaven Allows is a more comfortable movie to watch. Everyone hates suburbia in the same way everyone hates gossip or venality. Giant, in its almost embarrassing frankness about what racism does to decay a culture’s soul, is a little harder to watch. It forces a long, uncomfortable look in the mirror for us. If Bick Benedict, the Frankenstein’s monster of everything bad about America, can take a beating in a restaurant for the less fortunate, why don’t we do much more?