Friday, June 09, 2017

James And The Giant Film

I recently saw Giant (1956) for the first time on the big (well, fairly big) screen. Before I'd only caught it in bits and pieces on TV.  The only way to take it in is in a theatre, where there are no distractions. Because the film is long--201 minutes. And though the story takes place over decades, to be honest, not that much happens, especially regarding character development.

Based on Edna Ferber's novel, which I haven't read (has anyone read an Edna Ferber novel these days?), it's about a Texas rancher, Rock Hudson, who meet Elizabeth Taylor out East and brings her back home.

She adjusts to ranch life, and it adapts to her.  Meanwhile, ranch hand James Dean acquires some land and discovers oil.  Through the years, Liz and Rock's kids grow up while Dean becomes one of the richest men in Texas.  Eventually even Rock recognizes ranches are going away and sells out to Dean.  Meanwhile, he learns to be tolerant of Mexicans.

That's about it. Really.  I'm sure this story could have cut an hour without losing anything.  Best Director winner George Stevens always did take too long, especially in his post-WWII work.

But what I want to talk about is the acting.  Rock is stiff and handsome, which is enough for the role, I suppose. (He's certainly better than a very young Dennis Hopper as his son. Hopper is so stiff he makes Hudson looks like he's improvising.)  Liz Taylor is considerably more lively.

But then James Dean appears on screen and suddenly it's a new ballgame.  Up to this point, we're watching your basic 1950s epic.  Lots of vistas, lots of color, lots of time to eat your pop corn.  And the performances are done in classic Hollywood epic style.

Then Dean shows up, with his "modern" style, and you wonder how he got into this film. He only starred in three movies before dying young, and the other two are built around his character, so he doesn't stick out as much.

Here, however, everyone is declaiming their lines very clearly, while Dean is mumbling, and hemming and hawing.  Others stand tall and straight, proudly letting us see what who they are. Dean can't stand straight, and he can't stand still, always doing something.

The Dean style would take over films (one reason why modern epics feel so different), but back then, it's as if this virus has been released.

And I'm not complaining.  His character, Jett Rink, is actually fairly ridiculous.  And his story, working at the edges, isn't really that important.  Yet he's riveting. Nothing else in the film matters when he appears.

It makes you wonder what would have happened if he'd lived.


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