Friday, 12 March 2010

Now He's Too Rich To Kill.

Avert your eyes - more James Dean love coming up. But rest assured (or saddened), it's the last of his three. That he only made three is a tragic loss, though at least he went out with one of the best hit rates in history. And he managed to avoid that terrible slide of other figures of similar standing from the period - I'm looking at you, Marlon Brando.

Giant is big by name, and big by nature. The last of Dean's performances (after East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause) it picked up his second consecutive posthumous Oscar nomination - I'm pretty sure that's a feat no one else has achieved, and probably never will. Surely helped by the fact that he died shortly before production had even wrapped (some of his lines ended up being dubbed by another actor), and that the film spent a solid year in the editing suites. It released 14 months after he died.

Giant is a three hour plus epic, and the story is pretty huge, so I'm not going to be able to do it justice. Briefly, Rock Hudson plays Texas rancher Bick Benedict, who falls in love with and marries young Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) when he goes to buy a horse off her father. She struggles to win over Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who runs the ranch, for a long time, as Luz feels replaced. Bick and Leslie have a couple of kids, Jordan (Dennis Hopper) and Luz II (Carroll Baker), neither of whom seem too keen on taking over the extensive ranching operation the family has built up over years. To add insult to injury, Jordan goes off and marries a Mexican immigrant.

Running parallel is Dean's story. Shortly after the arrival of Leslie, Jett Rink (Dean) is reminded that he was fired. Luz, however, has affections for him, convincing Bick to let him stay on, despite his drinking problems and the fact that, well, he's just a bit of a prick. After Luz dies (thrown by the horse that Bick bought off Leslie's father), she bequeaths to Jett a small parcel of land. Bick tries to buy it off him, but Jett honours her wishes and sequesters himself on the pocket, building a house as he continues his desperate slide into alcoholism. Suddenly, however, he discovers oil, mining his land for all that it is worth and making an absolute fortune. He tries to lease Bick's ranch, to put down rigs that would see Bick pocket a very tidy sum of money (the word 'billion' is thrown around - and this is back around the time of the war, so you know that's a hell of a lot of money), but Bick refuses, stating that his ranch will never be an oilfield, though it's reasonably obvious that it is primarily due to his dislike of Jett. Jett doesn't worry, instead building a vast empire. The Benedicts and Rink are both very wealthy, but Rink is fast descending into alcoholic madness, though it does not stop him from pursuing Luz II, much to Bick's disdain. Finally, however, Jett collapses at the feet of the destruction he has sown for himself.

Yep, that's the short version. And it sounds like Jett's side of the story is the major one, but really it's a subplot, and his being nominated for Lead Actor reeks of category fraud that may actually have cost him an Oscar he deserved, instead pitting him against costar Hudson and probably splitting the vote. All of the performances in the film are superb, masterfully handled by director George Stevens (the only person to pick up an Oscar for this film, despite nine other nominations.) Stevens in fact manages to craft a solidly and consistently compelling film from start to finish - as mentioned it is very long, and at the time I thought I was too tired to watch it in one sitting. Wrong. I couldn't stop, and just dealt with my fatigue the next day. And it was worth it. A great score, beautiful lensing from  William C. Mellor, and editor William Hornbeck should be handed an Oscar for managing to wade through the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of feet of film Stevens shot. That he managed to create a film as long as this that never once dropped the ball or seemed to contain an extraneous frame is truly laudable. 

As a curtain call for the icon that would be James Dean it is very fitting. Epic, despite the short life led by the star, it pulled in so much beauty and talent as to be a fitting tribute to someone who could have gone on to even better things. Imagine what a few more years under his belt could have done for him. If he could pull these performances out with the experience of only three features, give him another ten years and, if he had managed to stay on the rails, he would have been unstoppable. But, as it were, his legend will always remain, however succinct, as glorious. 5 stars.

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