Q: It’s sixty years this month since the release of the film Giant (40th anniversary poster above). This was a big film in the 1950s, but never ranks among the likes of The Godfather, Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind as a twentieth century classic. But I know you’re going to tell us that it has cultural significance that escapes most of us.
A: It’s only what you’d expect from me, isn’t it? You can see a half-century of popular culture in Giant. Three mortal figures advance towards immortality in this film.
Q: Well, that’s quite a claim. Continue.
A: First, the story. Edna Ferber’s book Giant concerns an oil-and-ranching family modeled on the Kleberg family, who ran (and still run today) the vast King Ranch in South Texas. Giant is the story a simple cowhand who becomes a conniving, bigoted oil tycoon and cattle baron and his strong-willed wife, transplanted from the greenery of her native Maryland, who curbs his Southern vulgarities with her Eastern civility. Serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal beginning in the spring of 1952, Giant was released that fall to immense sales, quickly leaping onto the New York Times best-seller list. But the film based on the novel secretes another story. Warner Brothers, having secured the rights – amid much competition from other studios – to Ferber’s work, cast Rock Hudson in the central role of Bick Benedict, the Texas rancher, Hudson, then 29, was what was known in the mid-1950s as “beefcake,” meaning an outstandingly handsome and muscular man who radiated heterosexual attractiveness. Montgomery Clift, also possessed of exceptional good looks, was earmarked for the role of Jett Rink, the poor dirt farmer who strikes it rich, thought to be based on Glenn McCarthy, who was a flamboyant oil millionaire, known as “King of the Wildcatters” (a wildcatter is a prospector who sinks exploratory oil wells). But the producers were suspicious of his drinking and opted for the then relatively untested method actor James Dean, who made East of Eden (1955) and seemed an acceptable risk. Dean was also handsome, but, in his case, haunted-looking, which was fashionably impressive – he looked, to use a term that originated at the time and has persisted since, cool.
Q: And the role of Leslie?
A: Grace Kelly was a natural for the role of Bick’s wife. The humble, blonde Philadelphia beauty who became Hollywood star had not yet fled to become a European princess and looked perfect. She was about as hot as it was possible to be at the time. She’d been in High Noon, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. The film’s director George Stevens had briefly considered Elizabeth Taylor, but, at 23, she seemed too young (Kelly was nearly two-and-a-half years older). The story goes that Hudson, possibly wary that hugely popular Kelly might steal his thunder, argued Taylor’s case and eventually got his way. Remember: Taylor was not yet the scandalizing hellcat she became, though, she had gone through her first unruly marriage and was now married to English actor Michael Wilding. But she had not yet taken on a role that was truly adult and the role demanded that she age an improbable twenty-five years over the course of Ferber’s saga.
Q: Now, you describe Hudson as beefcake. But he later became the first Hollywood star to die from Aids. He was gay, if memory serves. So?
A: This was the 1950s. America hadn’t even started contemplating repealing its sodomy laws, as they called them. Hudson was shut tight in the closet. In fact he was married to his agent’s assistant. In those days, they were called “lavender marriages,” meaning they were designed to remove suspicions about an actor’s sexual preferences.
Q: So, there were suspicions about Hudson?
A: In the film industry, for sure. But don’t forget, in the 1950s, Hollywood operated a smooth-functioning publicity operation and allowed only the information it wanted released to escape to the outside world. Had it become known that Hudson was gay – and he didn’t come out until only weeks before his death in 1985 – it would have killed off his professional career instantly.
Q: Did Taylor know?
A: Almost certainly. And, if she didn’t when they started filming, she would have known soon enough, if only because he didn’t make a move on her. She was one of the most desirable women in the world at the time and her marriage was apparently on the rocks. If there had been social media back then, we would have all got rolling reports on them.
Q: And Dean?
A: Well his heterosexual credentials were also called into question, though not as conspicuously as Hudson’s of course. Then again, there the gossip, rumour and hearsay surrounding Dean has never ceased. When someone dies, especially prematurely, it seems to provide the world with licence to think, say and share whatever they choose. Dean was killed in a road accident before filming had even finished. He’d completed his scenes and was driving his Porsche Spyder in Cholame, California. This was 1955. Dean (who was born in 1931), like Marlon Brando (born 1924) was one of those mid-20th century glamor-rebels challenging a society in the throes of a social, cultural and psychological adjustment to peacetime. Their political aspirations were captured in Brando’s answer to, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” in The Wild One (1953). “What’ve you got?” Elvis was another pin-up rebel without a cause, conviction or purpose. Dean, perhaps more than the others, encoded the mood of his generation. It was a generation that had not yet assimilated changes in the cultural politics of sex: Dean was unequivocally male and that meant his glazed handsomeness was intended to excite young women. It did. But that was just the visible tip of Dean’s ultra cool iceberg. The Dean myth grew bigger, appreciably bigger, than the man. Check this picture of him in crucifiorm mode, with Taylor looking at him almost worshipfully.
Q: Let me pause briefly to reflect: the film featured Hudson, who was, for all the world knew, a straight lady’s man, but who later took on iconic importance when he became the first Aids victim from the Hollywood A-list. There was also Taylor, who, at that time, was still four years away from her scandalous affair with Eddie Fisher, who was best man at her third wedding, and married to one of the world’s most popular girl-next-door types, Debbie Reynolds — and father of her children. And Dean, who died young and handsome and whose image was to adorn millions of posters, tee-shirts, coffee mugs and who was to become the subject of books and movies. He was one of those characters who, as they say, captured the zeitgeist.
Q: I get it: they were all, in their own ways, icons of the late twentieth century.
A: Yes, though the affair with Fisher was only the start of the Taylor’s notoriety. In the early 1960s, she meet Richard Burton in Italy on the set of Cleopatra (see below). Still married to Fisher, she became involved with the Welsh actor, himself married and with children. The timing of the clandestine affair was perfect in a sense. The Italian photojournalists who later became known to us all as paparazzi were just beginning their exploits and caught Taylor and Burton in flagrante. The image quickly circulated around the world, heralding the arrival of a new type of journalism.