For my first review, we have his final film: Giant, a three and a half hour epic spanning two generations of the Benedict family, which has always been a family of Texan ranchers. James Dean has a secondary role, as Jett, the moody cowhand who happens upon a nice bit of oil on the little patch of the ranch bequeathed to him.
The stars are Rock Hudson, playing Jordan Benedict (AKA Bick) the head rancher, and Elizabeth Taylor, playing his refined upper-class wife Lesley. Taylor is brilliantly feisty as the young wife, determined to take on Texan life and the sexist attitudes of Bick and his friends, who don't think politics and business are topics for a lady. She becomes a bit more mellow when the second generation come along but still makes her presence felt by being elegant and graceful in a way only Elizabeth Taylor can look.
Hudson is the sturdy rock (accidental pun) of the film, which for a soapy melodrama actually throws a curveball. At the start Bick is a bossy husband whereas Jett is the hardworking cowhand trying to better himself, both stubbornly persuing Lesley. But actually racism proves to be the real drama of the story; it's there in the background from the start but it's only when Jordan Benedict II (Dennis Hopper) falls for Mexican girl Juana (Elsa Cardenas) that you get it. Funnily enough, the source material is a novel written by Edna Ferber, who also wrote Showboat- subsequently adapted into a musical that was groundbreaking for its treatment of racism.
Could the film have been shorter? If it had simply been a love triangle, it could have been half the running time. But it's a film about two generations; symbolically the children are named after everyone from the first generation (apart from one of the daughters). The intrigue of whether the kids will turn out like their namesakes keeps the film moving. In one interesting twist, Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), the woman of the house who had a soft spot for Jett, appears again in the form of Bick's daughter Luz II, who also fancies Jett. Frustratingly this dynamic isn't explored enough in the first section; the character of Jett is the most interesting. A bad job by the make-up and costume department means that he looks just too ridiculous as a middle-aged man and Luz II's line about Jett being 'dreamy' is unintentionally hilarious.
Considering that Giant would turn out to be Dean's swan song, it's a real shame. There's an endless debate of whether he was potentially as good as Marlon Brando or whether he was just a pop icon: the ultimate teenager. Giant actually signals a shift in his persona. Unlike East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, he actually plays an adult this time and it's the costume that stops him from pulling it off rather than his performance.
I've always had mixed feelings about James Dean; when I watched Eden a few years back I found him a little brattish, and of course his character in Rebel is a troubled brat. Yet in Giant, he's a misunderstood man who wants the American Dream- which turns out to be awful and tacky. In the first half, he looks so sultry that it's a shame he didn't get more screen time here, casting smouldering looks at Lesley and the audience, Freudianly stroking a horse and repeated scenes of him dripping with water or oil. Dean can be a little overwrought in emotional scenes (see Rebel Without A Cause) but this works perfectly for the epically soapy melodrama that the film is and with some guidance he might have learnt to curb it. He was edging towards being a man rather than a pin-up for schoolgirls.
This is definitely one for James Dean fans and Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson don't disappoint. The real giants here are the three actors, all effortlessly radiating star quality in a way that just doesn't exist any more.