Giant (1956, George Stevens)
!! CAUTION !!
How goddamn long has it been since you watched a really good bad movie? It’s been ages for me; I’m always on a mildly diverting quest for one, though lately it’s been interrupted all too many times by other petty concerns such as life, work, health, books, writing, the news, the weather, and good or “legitimate” movies. Plenty of those “legitimate” movies are quite terrible and provided considerably less entertainment value than I might have wroght from some of my recent “great bad film” candidates, such as Peter Hyams’ stunningly inept A Sound of Thunder, the American Idol cash-in From Justin to Kelly (every two-minute sequence I’ve withstood has been a riot), and Neil LaBute’s mystifying Wicker Man.
I never expected to find the next Manos on, of all places, the now nearly-finished AFI list. But George Stevens’ gargantuan, bizarre, schizophrenic, artless, baffling Giant fits the bill. It isn’t quite as fun as Manos — it’s nearly three and a half hours, at which point anything except Gone with the Wind has long since passed the “fun” barrier — but it’s just as strange. The only non-ironic praise I can give it is that it’s never boring. I feared such an outcome early on; the movie lost me quickly with its over-the-top, self-adoring title sequence, which contains in itself as much blatant Oscar posturing as a decade of Merchant-Ivory productions. Stevens is accused in most writing I’ve come across as being convinced that every film he made had to define its genre forever, had to be bigger than life and bigger than the movies. It’s defined as a character flaw (the same one that taints Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark by some accounts), but I admire it in a way. There are many worse things in the world, in and outside of the movies, than overambition.
Giant is — red light! — based on an Edna Ferber novel. If ever one thing screamed “bad idea,” that’s it (witness the Oscar-winner Cimarron two decades earlier), but Stevens pressed with the application of Hollywood epic technique to trashy Across Two Generations soap novel for the And Ladies of the Club audience in appropriately tasteless and superficial style. The basic issue with the thing, and it probably comes from the source, is that it’s about three movies arbitrarily strung together. Yeah, they share characters and themes, but only in the obligatory way the first and twenty-seventh seasons of General Hospital might share them. The first third, we learn all about how a versatile-to-no-avail Liz Taylor marries some asshole she doesn’t like all that much (nor do we), the sublimely inexpressive Rock Hudson, and all the jealous people on the ranch really hate her, ooh they hate her because she goes to help people when she’s not supposed to and one time she tried to talk about politics and this other time she was worried about a baby and wanted to ride a horse. Then Hudson’s sister, a lesbian constantly attempting to engage Taylor in catfights, gets killed and leaves the late James Dean, a dirty man who drives a car around the ranch while Hudson barks orders at him, a small tract of land which actually starts spewing out oil and then Dean is rich. Did I mention they keep setting up an affair between Taylor and Dean that never happens (but presumably it does in the novel)?
Anyway, then years pass as the children (they had children, by the way) grow up and get married, one of them to a Mexican, which you’re not supposed to do I guess, and eventually Rock lets Jimmy drill for oil on his land, and then the family has more money, and then they go to the Oscars or some shit and ride in a plane and a car but everybody gets into these impossibly mismatched brawls and on the way home Rock Hudson says he doesn’t want any more “fancy” stuff, then he gets into another fight which allows him to display his first redeeming qualities of the film: he isn’t a racist! Even though a few minutes earlier he was! James Dean — playing an old man, complete with a mustache — has by this point disappeared from the movie, long after the audience and filmmakers forgot whether they were supposed to like him or hate him, but all of them sure that the only reason they bothered to come to see this shit is now MIA. So the movie proceeds to lull them to sleep with several minutes’ worth of meaningless closeups of babies, ominously shot with a terrifying zoom lens.
That summary is more coherent than the movie, to be honest. I would get upset about such a big mess getting so much praise if it weren’t such a fun mess. I can’t quite recommend it as any kind of a good film, but it’s worth watching once at least, just to see that Hollywood didn’t know where to put its assloads of money in 1956 either. The movie toys with having some kind of moral code. It vaguely attacks racism but only in the most half-hearted of ways; it has more conviction about sexual discrimination, allowing Taylor to spew out several proto-feminist speeches to her husband, but the preachiness comes to nothing. He’ll never change cuz after all, he’s just a man. By the way, none of this has anything to do with the story, not that there is one.
Giant goes on and on about Texas; if you took out all the romanticizing about Texas, the movie would probably be an hour shorter. So I want to know who fucking cares about Texas? I knew someone who waxed rhapsodically about it and about the nature of the people there. I knew someone else who was President for a while and did the same thing, once claiming that Winston Churchill was very much “like a Texan.” What is up with the proportion of people who consider Texas some kind of stunningly prestigious heritage in and of itself compared to any other state? People don’t act like being from California actually means something except a quicker way to stumble into The Industry. Why does being from Texas make you stubborn, resourceful, poetic, fiery, loyal? Sounds like a pretty shoddy idea to base a novel and movie around to me, which may be why the thing doesn’t hang together at all.
Liz Taylor is one of those movie stars who is really good at making everybody else look really convincing. I used to think she was a terrible actress, then I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a movie I at first loathed beyond typical boundaries of loathing, but even I admitted she was great in it. There are things she’s really good at — see also the effective charms on display in A Place in the Sun — but the Vivien Leigh act she puts on for most of this movie is not one of them. The flashes of great work she does here are brief, all drowned in the lazy enormity of it all. (I kept wondering how many times the director had to sit through this movie before releasing it and almost feeling sorry for him.) The movie’s sense of humor and its mild spice are largely owed to Taylor, who has most of the good lines and a near-monopoly on moments that are actually sympathetic.
Oh my god, this movie rips off so many other movies I started trying to keep a list but lost track: There’s Rebecca (new wife Elizabeth Taylor’s adapting to ranch life among the skeptics), Gone with the Wind (fucking everything; had nobody reissued the movie lately in 1956?), The Best Years of Our Lives (near-shot for shot replication of wedding scene), Citizen Kane (Dean at 60), and probably a staggering number I’ve never seen.
– Freaked-out Sal Mineo creeping away slowly while an intoxicated Rock Hudson drones on about the lack of interest his son (played by a young but as-inept-as-ever Dennis Hopper) is taking in a Promising Career in Ranching. Mineo’s doing exactly what I sort of wanted to do at the same time… and yet I couldn’t look away. Hudson is pretty convincing as a drunken buffoon, but unfortunately that’s about all he has to offer.
– Speaking of which, Giant provided me with an image I doubt I will ever be able to extract from my mind. James Dean, in hilarious Charles Foster Kane-ish old age makeup, lumbers across the screen, is so damn hip even as an old man that he doesn’t know what day it is (Christmas), slurs his way through a speech given at some banquet, then rants about his loneliness while in the big room all by himself. Did I mention the part where he’s insulting “wetbacks” for no apparent reason?
– Earlier, James Dean, soaked in oil, drives up to professional dickhead Hudson’s porch and begins raving in marble-mouthed Brando style about how successful he is about to become, quickly crossing the line between triumphant to creepy to psychotic when he lecherously attempts to smear his black gold across Liz Taylor’s cleavage only to catch a few blows from Hudson then drive off laughing maniacally. It’s like someone threw in a sequence from Nightmare on Elm Street at the midpoint.
– Old crazies James Dean and Rock Hudson try to have a brawl in the winery, and the director or someone’s pet cat scampers off to avoid the mess.
– A (well-edited, Shane-style) fight late in the film occurs in a very ’50s diner, where the buffoonish owner holds up his constitutional right not to serve Mexican newborns. After he beats Rock Hudson to a pulp, he shows him that he has a sign! It reads “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” D’OH!
– After someone else refuses to serve his immigrant wife, Dennis Hopper immediately throws something at a mirror. He doesn’t actually verbally protest or ask any questions or say anything at all, he just picks something up and throws it as if he simply was seeking the opportunity to break something.
George Stevens’ fantasies of a post-gendered, post-racial society clash ferociously with the wealth-worshiping conservatism of Ferber’s source text — the only shot of pleasure one gets from this huge, laughable, surprisingly inept mess is when oil-slathered Dean socks tycoon Hudson in the face, not that Dean’s character isn’t a pretty insufferable asshole himself. (This was Dean’s last movie. He provides its only spark of actual youthful excitement. The motherfucker is a pretty excellent actor and it’d be sorta nice if he’d worked with more than one equally excellent director.) Conclusively, though, Giant really is one of the funniest bad movies Hollywood’s ever made, on the off-chance that you ever have the time to bother.
[Originally posted in 2007, with a few small changes and additions.]