Saturday, June 8, 2013

GIANT: Chill Out?

This is not based on any film review theory that I've heard or read.  It's based on something I've come to feel about a supporting character in one of my all-time favorite films, Giant.  The character is played by Chill Wills.  To me, this 1956 George Stevens film is an American classic that urges us to remove the mental barriers of social class in our country.  In that regard, it's part of his trilogy along with A Place in the Sun and Shane.  In Giant, we're also asked to embrace racial diversity.  Maybe even sexual diversity too -- and not just in the intellectual feminism of Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie, the wealthy Maryland horsewoman who falls for and marries a far wealthier Texan named Jordan "Bick" Benedict, played by Rock Hudson.  He's a good man but he's got some very archaic attitudes towards women and Mexicans.

This movie stars two people who graduated from MGM work.  One is, of course, Taylor who'd been a child and teen star at MGM, attending studio schools with Judy Garland and making hit films such as National Velvet, a remake of Little Women and Father of the Bride.  As a superstar adult, the first of her two Best Actress Oscar wins would come for MGM's Butterfield 8.  Chill Wills had two Judy Garland musicals on his resumé.  He did Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls.  The big, brawny guy with a recognizable drawl was a stand out supporting actor in musical comedies, non-musical comedies, westerns and dramas like Leave Her To Heaven and The Yearling.  Vincente Minnelli had him grace the Meet Me in St. Louis opening scenes with little Margaret O'Brien.
In Giant, he's the all-wise, slow-talking, man-of-few words veteran ranchhand on the massive Benedict Ranch.  He's a longtime friend of Bick's.  He's present when Bick and Leslie are newlyweds, he's there during squabbles when they separate and need to fall in love all over again, he's around when they're a middle-aged couple with grown kids who, themselves, have fallen in love with people that they want to marry.

Through all those years and family history, Uncle Bawley is a solo Texan.  He's never married.  He never speaks of wanting to marry.  He never mentions being sweet on any woman.  Nobody ever asks Uncle Bawley  when he's going to settle down and get married.  The shy local gal many folks thought Bick would marry finds someone else and has a long, happy marriage.  Jett (the James Dean character) is asked when he's going to settle down.  Not Uncle Bawley.  He's never asked.  Benedict family and friends just let him be.  He knows the ways, loves and secrets of the Benedict Family.  This big ol' wrangler is an important member of the Benedict inner circle.
I think if Uncle Bawley did fall in love, it would be a same-sex attraction and affection.  It's just not talked about there in Texas at that time.  Not that a big, burly, bourbon-drinking cowhand who plays Debussy's Clair de Lune on an organ automatically means he's heterosexually-challenged, but it's an inspired detail.  Early in the film, we see that he has a foot in the groom's life and a foot in the bride's life.  Both love him and he loves them.  He's got to be "one o' the guys" with Bick and his chauvinist macho posse when they're sitting around talking "men's stuff."  But he also respects and understands the outspoken Leslie, a woman with a fine mind of her own.  She grew up around books and politics.  With full feminist fire, she calls Bick and his friends out in declaring the subject "men's stuff" just moments after she was in a wistfully romantic mood.

Uncle Bawley knows that Leslie is right.  She represents a needed change that will come to the life in the huge, remote Benedict home.  This will be a change in look and in social attitudes.  Cultured, compassionate Leslie is practically a one-woman civil rights movement when it comes to improving conditions for the Mexicans on Benedict property.  Bawley sees the same potential for positive change in Bick that Leslie does.  Bawley knows that Bick is really clueless when it comes to raising children.  He's got their lives all planned.  Bick will make the same mistakes that his father did.  With Leslie, the Benedict children will be allowed to follow their own hearts and minds.

Bawley also knows that Jett, Bick's belligerent and hard-drinking rival who just struck oil, has been in love with Leslie ever since he first laid eyes on Bick's young bride.  Leslie's presence shows us a gentlemanly side of Jett's behavior.  Jett was poor then and worked on Benedict property.  After Jett sucker punches his rival and runs off, Bawley remarks "Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago.  Now he's too rich to kill."  Jett is now older and romancing Leslie's daughter, Luz.  Bawley knows that he's really romancing Leslie, whom he sees so much of in her daughter (beautifully played by Carroll Baker).

Luz, a level-headed and responsible lady, is so young that she believes middle-aged Jett is the love of her life.  She thinks the love is mutual.  She has no idea that a lost love is a reason why he drinks.  She has no idea who that lost love is.

There's a tenderly played scene in which Uncle Bawley gently takes Luz to see the truth of the situation.  They watch a drunken Jett alone, pathetic and ranting in heartbreak.  He longs for Leslie.  Watch the scene.  There are tears streaming down Bawley's face.  Such a touching moment.  Chill Wills gets me every time in that revealing scene.
Could Bawley have once been secretly in love with Jett...the way Jett was in love with Leslie?  Chill Wills gives an expert dimension to the role.  It's not a large part but it's constant throughout this epic American tale.  It's one of the several memorable performances in this George Stevens classic.

Think of the emotions and feelings Jack Twist (as played by Jake Gyllenhaal) expressed in the movie Brokeback Mountain.  Uncle Bawley might have understood, might have had those same feelings.  Chill Wills' understated performance and his big sweet bear of a character are worth another look.  I love this film.

The Academy honored Giant's George Stevens with the Oscar for Best Director.  Rock Hudson and James Dean (posthumously) were nominated for Best Actor.  Mercedes McCambridge was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Giant got a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Elizabeth Taylor won two Best Actress Oscars in her career and received five nominations in that category.  If she'd received a sixth, it should've been for her terrific performance in Giant.  For Taylor fans, this is a must-see film.  Giant was in the Best Picture Oscar race.  The winner was Around the World in Eighty Days, produced by the famous and charismatic Michael Todd.  He was Elizabeth Taylor's husband, so she still got to take home some Hollywood gold that Oscar night.

If you've never seen A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953) and Giant (1956), I highly recommend that you experience all three.  They truly are works of cinematic art directed by George Stevens.  What they say about class, race, the underprivileged and gun ownership in America is still relevant.

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