Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Giant" (1956)

I had a classic film geek moment yesterday morning.  There are some movies that, regardless of how many times you've seen them, will pull you in yet again if they happen to be on television.  If you can't see the whole film, a sequence will suffice as a must-see.  Even if I don't have time see the whole film, I'm happy if I can catch the first 20 minutes of Giant directed by George Stevens.  I love how Stevens visually communicates that we're in for a saga and love story that will cover one generation into the next.  He does it with modes of transporation.  Under the credits and the muscular Dimitri Tiomkin score, we see Texas cattle on vast arid land with a pool of water.  This is Benedict territory.
Cut to a wide shot with more strings in the orchestral arrangement and more green in the scene.  The territory is verdant, appealing.  We see horses galloping on the property.  There are people in fancy riding uniforms on horses, animals once used as travel and mail delivery.  Think of the Pony Express.  We also see the Iron Horse entering the frame.  On this train, sits our leading man.  Rock Hudson is young and culturally arid Jordan "Bick" Benedict, Jr.  He's head of the Benedict ranch and on a trip of West meets East.
The big Texan arrives at the Maryland depot where he's met by a gentleman in "the horseless carriage."  The man in the car is Dr. Lynnton.  He's got a stallion that Jordan is interested in buying for $10,000.  "That's a lot of money, " Dr. Lynnton remarks.
The stallion is being ridden by Dr. Lynnton's daughter, Leslie.  The horse is described as "spirited." The same adjective applies to Leslie, wonderfully played by Elizabeth Taylor.  Leslie is a well-read feminist and civil rights activist ahead of her time.  She's also drop-dead gorgeous.  Bick's probably never seen a woman ride side-saddle before.
When Jordan drawls "Doctor, that sure is a beautiful animal," we know he'll return to his ranch with more than a horse.  The attraction will prove to be mutual, although Jordan holds some of irritating views on gender, class and race.  Those views have been passed down from Benedict men probably since the days of the Pony Express and into the days of the horseless carriage.  We see the attraction at dinner.  Jordan will get his stallion.  Leslie will get hers by intellectually knocking him off his high horse and then romantically putting him back on top of it.  Leslie's mother and father assume she'll fall for David, played by Rodney Taylor.  Rodney acted opposite Elizabeth Taylor again two years later as Rod Taylor in Raintree County.  It's fitting that Stevens places David in between the Lynnton sisters because Leslie's loving younger sister (with the stars on her collar) is the one who has a yen for Sir David.  Dad and Mom don't notice that.  Leslie does.
Bit player Rodney Taylor ascended to movie stardom himself and worked with the Master of Suspense in a 1963 hit.  Rod Taylor saves Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's  The Birds.
There's another Hitchcock player in that Giant dinner scene.  Leslie's mother, who is delighted to discover that unmarried Mr. Benedict owns nearly half a million acres in Texas, is sweetly played by Judith Evelyn.  Today, that's not a name as recognizable as Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor or Rod Taylor.  But you classic film fans do know her.  Judith Evelyn was Miss Lonelyhearts in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic, Rear Window.
Remember that poor middle-aged woman alone in that girlishly-pink room?  She drinks to muster up the courage to leave and try to attract a man.  She goes out alone wearing a green dress.  Had she been a traffic light, she'd be a "go" sign to any available male.  Leslie, very appropriate and pretty in pink, chats with Jordan on the porch after dinner.  His train leaves the next morning.  There's a moment in Taylor's eyes when we see that Easterner Leslie is falling in love with Westerner Jordan Benedict.
Later, in her room, Leslie admits to her sister that she is in love with him as she stays up late to read about the history of Texas.  After breakfast, her father will drive Bick to the depot to catch his train back to Texas.  But, over breakfast, Leslie sticks a spur in Bick's side by challenging him on his chauvinistic views of Texas history.  Says Leslie, "...we really stole it..."  He snaps back with "...Do you know about San Jacinto?  Have you ever heard of the Alamo?"  He's been roped by Leslie.
Outside, Dr. Lynnton sits in his "horseless carriage" ready to drive Bick off to catch his Iron Horse back West.  Bick and Leslie walk over to the horse that brought them together.
Jordan "Bick" Benedict will miss that train and catch another one.  Stevens cuts to individual close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson gazing at each other.  Jordan is in love with her.  She's very much in love with him.  They're beautiful close-ups, especially Taylor's.  You feel the souls of the characters in that moment.  It's not the "Wow! I'm in love!" kind of romantic discovery.  It's the quiet, thorough moment when you realize that it's true love and not just romantic infatuation or a physical attraction.  It's much more.  This is the deep, true love that will change your life for years and years.
And that's the first 20 minutes of Giant.  Heck, I fell in love with them too.  Rock Hudson and James Dean were Best Actor Oscar nominees for this film.  Giant was nominated for Best Picture.  George Stevens won the Oscar for Best Director.  Stevens guided Elizabeth Taylor from movie star to serious film actress in 1951's A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift.  In that drama, too, Stevens looks at America's social class system. He got another excellent performance out of her for Giant, one of the finest of her long film career.  Far better and more dramatically challenging than her Academy Award-winning role in Butterfield 8.  She wasn't nominated for Giant but her work in it was certainly Oscar-nomination worthy.  Taylor still went home with a prize on Oscar night.  The Best Picture winner was Around the World in 80 Days.  It was produced by her husband, Michael Todd.  As for Giant, I loved seeing that rich, fluid opening sequence by George Stevens yesterday on TCM.  What a great and versatile director he was.

4 comments:

  1. I do think it's one of Liz Taylor's best performances. But the whole picture is perfect, in my opinion. Good job!

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  2. I agree. One of my favorite scenes...Carroll Baker as Luz seated alone with a drunken Jett. Just beautifully played.

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    1. I love Carroll Baker. I'll never understand why she went the way of the blonde bombshell in the mid-sixties.

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  3. I got to see Tippi last week! She was here in Albuquerque for a screening of "Marnie". Part of TCM's "Road to Hollywood". She is a beautiful lady!

    ~ Daniel B.

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