“Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film” by film scholar Don Graham tells the story of the filming of the epic movie western “Giant” in 1955.
The movie was based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel by the same name. Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Sal Mineo, and Carroll Baker were among the young stars who spent a blistering summer together near the small, remote town of Marfa, Texas, 194 miles southeast of El Paso.
The plot of “Giant” focuses on the 25-year-marriage of Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson) and Leslie Lynnton Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor). Leslie, from a well- to-do “proper” Virginia home, marries Jordan and moves to his sprawling ranch empire of close to a million acres. Leslie acclimates to the dry and dusty setting of her home in Texas, and she asserts herself as an equal to Luz, Benedict’s formidable sister.
It is Leslie who influences her husband to evolve from a racist blowhard to a man who reluctantly accepts change by the end of the movie, due in part to his son’s marriage to a Mexican woman.
Jordan begrudgingly accepts the fact, too, that his son is not interested in continuing his dynasty. Finally, Jordan has to bequeath his beloved ranch to oil rigs—oil the liquid gold that offers his family wealth to last generations. Change has come to Texas.
The film remains an important piece in film history not just because of the antics and juicy stories of its stars, (James Dean died just after filming the movie, and his legacy as a rebel and romantic was everlastingly ensured), it’s also an icon of film making because of its setting, its portrayal of overt racism, and acknowledgment of Mexican servicemen who served in World War II.
In the 1950s, it was unusual for movies to be filmed on location, as such the settings for westerns often looked fake or stilted. George Stevens was one of the first directors to film on location. The expansive views of the Texan plains and the mountains in the background provided stunning authenticity, unusual in early film making.
Ferber’s book often mocked the newly oil-rich Texans for their oversized displays of wealth. She wrote disparagingly of their racist views towards Mexicans. Her extensive research for the book confirmed this attitude. The novel, and subsequently the film, are astounding for their portrayals of overt racism. The film would not stand the test of political correctness today and would be considered offensive, rightly so. However, it did portray the economic oil boom in Texas following World War II that even today gives Texas its unique flavor and personality.
Director George Steven had a strong belief in racial equality, and one of his motivations was to tell a story that would cause viewers to confront their own prejudices. The movie was one of the first to give credit to soldiers of Mexican descent who gave their lives for their country in World War II. The quiet funeral scene of the young Mexican rancher who died in the war was shot over the objections of Ferber and Jack Warner, head of the studio. Neither understood the director’s commitment to honoring soldiers of ethnic backgrounds. (Warner also thought it added an unnecessary expense to the production).
This well-researched book includes details from the fraught and complicated lives of the soon-to-be famous actors. Big egos, jealousy and competition ruled the relationships between them. James Dean and Rock Hudson never did get along. Hudson believed that Dean was trying to steal the leading-man role from him, and in fact, he did. Dean received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Hudson received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Elizabeth Taylor, then the mother of two at the age of 23, ended her second marriage and began another with Mike Todd during the filming and release of the movie. Hudson, pressured to end speculation that he was gay (which in those days would have ended his career), married (and eventually divorced). Dean, defiant, odd and disliked by most, had charisma that made him a star, but he, too, was hounded by rumors of his gay lifestyle. Dennis Hopper was a young actor at the time who idolized Dean, and he subsequently based his future acting and behavior on that of the slightly older actor. He never really got over his shock and sadness following Dean’s death.
Although Texans were angry with novelist Ferber, for her portrayal of the racism, oversized egos, and display of wealth following the discovery of oil in the state, they warmed to the movie because of the attention it brought to the region. In fact, today Marfa is considered an artists’ haven with unique structures and events not unlike those in Santa Fe or Austin. A film festival featuring “Giant” is celebrated there annually, and residents credit the current success of the small town to the attention it received from the filming of “Giant” over 50 years ago.
Stevens received an Oscar Award for Best Director for “Giant.” The film is considered by many movie critics to be one of the best 100 movies of the 20th century.
Any reader interested in film history will appreciate this book. Those of us who are still captivated by movie stars and their dramatic stories will find great delight in it too. You will want to watch the film before reading the book in order to make mental references as you read. You will want to watch it after, as well, because you will notice so many more details, and you will know how the actors felt about their scenes.