Giant exposes 1950s Hollywood

No matter what you think of the 1956 epic "Giant," Don Graham's book is an entertaining case study for anyone who wants to understand how Hollywood lived in the mid-1950s. 
Giant exposes 1950s Hollywood

Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film 

No matter what you think of the 1956 epic “Giant,” Don Graham’s book is an entertaining case study for anyone who wants to understand how Hollywood lived in the mid-1950s. 

His behind-the-scenes story provides as much drama as director George Stevens’ sometimes lumbering movie about a handsome but hidebound cattle baron, who brings his East Coast bride to a not-so-little house on the prairie.

In the book “Giant,” writer Edna Ferber did what she had done so well in the best-sellers “Show Boat” and “Cimarron,” presenting a barbed social history of a place and its people riven by family clashes and conflicting business interests (cattle versus oil) and stained by racism (white mistreatment of Latinos). 

All that tension appealed to Stevens, then 50, whose documentary work in Nazi death camps during World War II brought a new maturity to his movie career. His long standing as a top director (“Gunga Din” and “Shane,” among others) helped fend off Warner Bros boss Jack Warner as the “Giant” budget nearly doubled to accommodate Stevens’ desire for location shooting and plenty of footage — he took a year just to edit the seemingly endless amounts of film.

Shooting in little Marfa, Texas, instead of Southern California, gave British-born Elizabeth Taylor, and Midwesterners Rock Hudson and James Dean a stronger sense of their characters and the land that impacted their lives. Among the delights of Graham’s making-of book are their fish-out-of-water experiences and the everlasting influence of “Giant” on Marfa itself. Stevens welcomed all visitors to his set, especially the local folks, who got an eyeful of the celebrities.

Stevens had to corral wildly different personalities on his set, and each gets an insightful mini-biography in Graham’s pages. Taylor, 23, and just starting to take acting seriously after nearly two dozen films, reunited happily with Stevens, her director for “A Place in the Sun” a few years earlier. She was with her second husband, actor Michael Wilding, and a mother of two young boys. Before the movie came out she was separated from Wilding and six months from marrying again.

Her two co-stars competed for her attention, in Hudson’s case a deep friendship rather than a movie-set romance. Just 29, he was fearful his career upswing would be ruined if word got out that he was gay. 

After completing his role in “Giant” he married his agent’s secretary. The movie brought Hudson new respect, an Oscar nomination and top ranking at the box office. He and his wife soon separated and he returned to his secret life.

Dean liked to be mothered by Taylor and other women in his orbit, having lost his own mother when he was a child. He might have had the most to gain from “Giant,” only his third film after numerous television appearances. 

At 24, he was the quintessential bad boy, showing up late, driving fast, rude to colleagues and guests and a glutton for attention. Yet Stevens discovered what directors Elia Kazan (“East of Eden”) and Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”) already knew: Dean was a pain, but you couldn’t take your eyes off him when he was on the screen.

The male co-stars disliked each other. By some accounts Hudson thought Dean was crude and unprofessional while Dean dismissed Hudson as a Hollywood actor not up to Actors Studio standards — and too fey for Dean’s tastes. “Giant” was still in production when Dean fatally crashed his Porsche sports car on a California highway in September 1955. 

He would compete with Hudson posthumously for Oscar honors, but the only Academy Award from the movie’s 10 nominations would go to its director.

Warner’s investment paid off financially when “Giant” brought in US$12 million at the box office, trailing only mega-hits “The Ten Commandments” and “Around the World in 80 Days” in a year when the average ticket cost 60 cents. Whether it holds up artistically is arguable, but the film is a fine example of the postwar epic drama. 

Special Reports