Eighty-five years ago last month, a couple in Marion, Indiana, welcomed a little boy named James Dean into the world. Unbeknownst to them, they gave birth to a man who would leave a massive impact on movies and pop culture. Unfortunately, James Dean left our world very prematurely on Sept. 30, 1955 at the age of 24 when an auto accident took his life. Even though Dean’s life on this planet was extremely short, he did leave a very large impact on the film world, with three major films under his belt: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and his final film, Giant (1956).
Giant is kind of like a contemporary version of Gone With the Wind (1939). Both films deal with the trials and tribulations of a family over a lengthy period of time, feature an all-star cast, have fantastic production values, and both are incredibly long. A big difference though is that Gone With the Wind was more centered on the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and what she went through before, during, and after the Civil War. Giant was more focused on the Benedict family and the struggles they went through while running a big ranch, like dealing with a rivalry and the changing times. Gone With the Wind just seemed to focus on one woman and her near sociopathic tendencies to rebuild her family estate after it was nearly destroyed by war.
One of the reason Giant has stood the test of time is how it was able to tackle the topic of discrimination and hate. It does start off small with Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) wanting better improvements for the Mexicans who work on the ranch she and her husband, Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson), own. The most prominent example of the movie tackling discrimination comes towards the end of the film when the elder Jordan Benedict stands up for his son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) and his wife, Juana (Elsa Cardenas), who are being bullied by a diner owner (Mickey Simpson). This stuff still resonates strongly today, especially given the political climate right now.
But I’m sure you’ll all wondering about James Dean’s role in the movie. In the film, he plays a former handyman for the Benedicts named Jett Rink who becomes infatuated with Leslie. He then goes off and gets his own pieces of land where he soon strikes oil and rubs it in Jordan’s face about how he’ll be just as rich as him. This plot line is the best example of the movie’s handling of class, with the tension between Jett and Jordan.
Dean’s performance is simply stunning and amazing. You watch and you get a great idea at what made this guy so appealing. Sadly he died shortly after filming which meant a lot of his ADR work had to be done by a different actor (Nick Adams). Through the role, you get the idea that the cinema lost a great budding young star who could have had a great career ahead of him, with hopefully the worst case scenario being that he ended up being in an Adam Sandler comedy. As a final performance, this movie is a good one to go out on.
As for the rest of the film, it features some spectacular cinematography by William C. Mellor, a fantastic score by the legendary Dimitri Tiomkin, and some great directing by George Stevens — who won the Academy Award for Best Directing that year.
If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Especially if you’re a fan of James Dean… although if you’re a fan of his, chances on you have already. In which case, you should help spread the word to others.