#304. Giant (1956)

Observing that I was just about past the 300th movie on the List, and seeing as the 1950s was full of epic three-hour Hollywood spectacles meant to compete against the small screen, and seeing, too, as 3×3 equals nine, a Holy Number that factors heavily in my all-time favorite book series, The Familiar—there were a buncha silly reasons for why I decided to spend my day off watching three three-hour movies: The Ten Commandments, Giant, and Ben-Hur. I only made it through the first two (which, put together, comprise seven hours of moviesitting) but there was something warm about wrapping up my evening with this generation-spanning Texas saga that we have here, in Giant, which echoes Gone with the Wind in all of its starpower and sprawl and regal southern flavor, but it also—at least for me—called to mind Rebel Without a Cause.

            Rebel was directed by Nicholas Ray, whose movie Bigger Than Life opened my eyes to some of the generation-defining attributes of 1950s cinema, and it starred James Dean in his second and star-making role.

            But I didn’t think he was all that remarkable in Rebel Without a Cause—a movie whose iconography kinda mystified me at first but is slowly starting to make sense. It was only with subsequent appearances on the List by Nicholas Ray and Natalie Wood that I appreciated their influence ont eh screen, and now, with Giant, I see what strikes me as the performance for which Dean oughta be remembered.

            He’s more of an anti-hero than a villain and he plays, at the beginning, an obnoxious, libidinous, untrustworthy young guy who’s looking for a good tiem—the obvious foil to Rock Hudson, the clean-cut patriarch of Casa Benedict, which he shares with his wife Liz Taylor. Eventually Dean, after inheriting some adjacent chunk of land from Hudson’s treacherous late sister Luz (played by Mercedes McCambridge, who manifests the same perfect menace here as she mustered in Johnny Guitar), strikes oil, and becomes rich, and as a newly-minted member of the bougoisie he’s pretty abrasive. Still very much the antagonist. But Dean plays it, as the movie goes on, with his character split between loathing what he now represents as a wealthy southern oil man while at the same time wanting to fit in with that crowd, to be respected.

            And he’s only in a handful of scenes.

Dean in old man’s guise.

            I don’t think Dean’s performance would have been so striking in normal circumstances, like if he’d just gone on to have a normal career after this, but he died two weeks after the film wrapped, so there’s something almost haunted about the movie. A viewer’s attention is pulled with some curious focus and absorption to the arc of this boyish, competitive, lonely and conflicted oil man.

            Otherwise the movie’s just the portrait of a Texas family that was pretty unremarkable for the first half or so.

            I’ve got a personal interest in ageing, and how people from the age of roughly 60 onward conduct their lives while living in the constant, enormous, shrieking company of their past, so that might bias me toward feeling the second half of the movie is way more interesting—especially with the addition of a jarringly youthful and wholesome-looking Dennis Hopper as the male half of their fraternal twin children.

            There’s a love triangle going on and an odd third-act handling of racism. I guess the handling works well. What happens is that Jordy (Hopper) marries and has a kid with a Mexican woman, and is subject then to the casual racism of people around the family. I guess I’m just accustomed to racism being a theme that envelops a movie as opposed to being one theme, one story element, among others.

Shots like this, the depth and the arrangement of the cast, the way everything is so ordered and large–it feels pointedly cinematic. You can tell right away that this wasn’t made for television.

            Although I suppose that does seem truer to life, doesn’t it?, that something like racism, or your greedy neighbor, or a child who wants to puruse a future other than what their parents hoped for would be issues tha tocmplicate the living of life rather than becoming life.

            Giant is based on a novel by Larry McMurtry and sure enough, it feels very literary; it’s got structure, in other words, but it’s very relaxed about allowing for digressions.

            I can see myself re-watching it somewhere way down the line.

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