Giant (1956)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) As a swan song for James Dean, Giant is a fitting statement. A vast family generational drama set in the vast expanses of oil-rich Texas, Giant begins as our newlywed heroine (the ever-captivating Elizabeth Taylor) moves from the East Coast to arid Texas, and befriends a ranch hand (Dean). One semi-accidental death later, the ranch hand inherits some land that proves to be soaked with oil. Over the next few decades, he develops an empire, leading to a climactic confrontation at the opening of his grand hotel where long-held feuds are detonated. Dean manages to play both a young cowboy and an aging industrialist, holding his own not only against Taylor, but also Rock Hudson as the ranch owner who ends up butting heads with his ex-employee. If Giant has a flaw, it’s that it’s a really, really long movie at three hours and twenty-one minutes. I don’t mind the multi-decade scope as much as the length of each individual scene—time and time again, the film takes forever to make a point that could have been made far more efficiently. Surprisingly enough, I don’t quite dislike Dean’s performance—he’s mopey in the film’s first half, but rural mopey rather than urban mopey or suburban mopey such as in his other two films and as such sidesteps his caricatures that have emerged since then. In the film’s last half, he effectively becomes a drunken unhappy industrialist and actually sells the role rather well despite playing decades older than he was at the time. My other issue with Giant is how it doesn’t reach a climax as much as it blows up over a lengthy period at the hotel, then moves to a roadside diner for a moral climax that actually makes the film’s conclusion feel far smaller. That’s what you get from working from a novel as source material, though—whether you have the guts to change what doesn’t make sense on the screen, or you get criticized for it. The film has endured rather well—its anti-racism streak is still surprisingly relevant, and its anti-sexism message also comes across. The film also shows with a decent amount of detail the transition from Texas’ ranching heritage to its more modern oil extraction boom. I may not like Giant all that much, but I respect it a lot, and I frankly find it disappointing that it got beaten by as frothy a spectacle as Around the World in 80 Days for the Best Picture Oscar.

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