Beyond the James Dean Mythology with Graham’s ‘Giant’

Looking back at the novel and the iconic Hollywood film, with its biting indictment of greed, misogyny and bigotry in Texas.

James Dean in "Giant."

When the Warner Bros. film version of Edna Ferber’s novel Giant premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York on Oct. 10, 1956, things quickly went bad — like something out of Nathaneal West’s The Day of the Locust. Emotionally riled fans of the late James Dean pressed against the barriers and began menacing members of the press and the film’s cast, including Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Hudson’s shirt was torn. A trio of girls grabbed at Taylor’s hair, and she emerged from the melee missing one of her $10,000 earrings. Most seriously injured was Jane Withers, who played a supporting role in the Texas epic. She was thrown to her knees, which were scraped raw. Carroll Baker, who portrayed one of Hudson and Taylor’s daughters, later recalled the “red, distorted, lunatic faces” of the Dean acolytes.

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Though he had died more than a year earlier a car crash, Dean was the center of attention on the red carpet that day, as he’d been during the shooting of the film and as he would be both on the Roxy screen and in the minds of film buffs contemplating Giant more than six decades later. As Austin-based author Don Graham notes in his new book, Giant: Edna Ferber, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Making of a Legendary American Film, when the Blu-ray edition of the movie was released in 2013, the cover showed a large image of Dean as the Texas ranch hand turned oil tycoon Jett Rink. Dean’s depiction dwarfed the images of Hudson and Taylor, who portrayed cattle baron Jordan “Bick” Benedict and his wife, Leslie. Writes Graham:

Anybody looking at it without knowing anything about the film would conclude that [Dean] is the star of Giant. And many contemporary journalists and bloggers freely assume that this is so.

Ironically, Graham seems at times to lead the Dean parade himself. He devotes a huge share of the book to the troubled (and troublemaking) actor. A long early chapter traces in detail the actor’s early life and his rise from featured theatrical and TV appearances to key roles in his two other major feature films: Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (also 1955). Throughout the remainder of the book there are long descriptions of Dean’s tortured psyche and bad-boy behavior (reefer-smoking on the set, very public urination). At least Graham gives Ferber billing over Dean in the book’s unwieldy subtitle. Poor George Stevens, who directed the film (and who would win the only Academy Award it garnered), didn’t even make the cut.

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“Giant” stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

Graham, smartly, zeroes in on one of the central ironies involving Dean and Giant — namely, that the doomed star’s admirers (“Deaners,” he calls them) tend to have significant reservations about the film. In the first place, after sitting through Giant’s 198-minute running time, they realize that their guy is not the story’s central figure. In fact, there are long stretches in which he’s nowhere to be seen. In the second place, although Dean plays a youthful rebel early in the picture, in the second half he’s been aged to look like a much-older Jett Rink — and he’s convincing in the part. His disciples over the generations have wanted a Dean who is forever an angry young man, an upstart crow who scoffs at authority. But, at the film’s end, “Jimmy” looks more like a middle-aged Howard Hughes.

The new book seems drawn almost entirely from other people’ books, articles and broadcasts. This is understandable: of the major members of the cast, only Baker, Withers and Elsa Cárdenas survive, and they have had decades to say their piece about Giant. Key crew members are likewise gone. So, to whom, exactly, would the author have turned for a fresh perspective?

He might have developed a stronger overarching thesis and tightened the prose a bit. Sometimes he includes information not fully essential to the subject (for instance, his details about the lives of Hudson and Taylor, post-Giant). On the other hand, this is a big story, and it lends itself to a bit of narrative sprawl. All said, it’s an enjoyable read.

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Graham can turn enthusiastically gossipy when touching on the personal proclivities of the Giant cast. Hudson and Taylor immediately bonded during the shoot — so much so that people thought they were having an affair (and Graham suggests it might have been possible, Hudson’s homosexuality notwithstanding). Dean and Baker, the film’s Method-y actors, would initially make fun of the leading man and lady behind their backs, but gradually the brooding Dean brought out Taylor’s motherly instincts (she had recently given birth to her second son by then-husband Michael Wilding). Was it jealousy over Liz that made Rock and Jimmy clash? Or, as one rumor has it, did old-school-gay Hudson make a pass that was rebuffed by the bisexual Dean, resulting in a hostile standoff?

All these decades later, the answers to such questions probably matter to few people. But Graham’s book is useful in 2018 in that it prompts readers to consider just how politically and socially relevant Ferber’s novel and Stevens’ film have remained.

Novelist Edna Ferber’s other books include “Show Boat” and “Saratoga Trunk.”

The film’s political sensibilities originated with Ferber. Her novel is a biting indictment of Texans’ greed, misogyny and bigotry. As Graham points out, in the opening chapters Ferber wildly exaggerates the capitalistic excesses of the Lone Star State oil men of the era, suggesting they all flew gargantuan private jets whenever they felt the need to step away from their ranch homes. Texans were insulted. They loathed the book and were extremely apprehensive about the motion-picture adaptation. Stevens hoped to soothe Texans’ bruised feelings about what they felt had been a literary hatchet job by the novelist. One move that proved helpful was the hiring of affable native son Chill Wills to portray Bick Benedict’s Uncle Bawley. Another was to open the location shoot near Marfa, TX, to anyone who wanted to come around and watch the cinematic epic being made. Thousands of gawkers converged on the town during the course of the Marfa shoot. Some watched rushes being screened at the town’s cinema.

In confronting Texans’ misogyny, Ferber had utilized duck-out-of-water protagonist Leslie Benedict, who hails from the relatively un-flamboyant state of Virginia (Maryland in the film). A strong-willed and opinionated young woman, Leslie marries Bick and moves with him to his Reata ranch, where she persistently questions the Texas way of life and the Texas brand of big. Her impatience with the boorish condescension she encounters takes on a quasi-feminist tinge. Stevens, along with screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, kept much of Leslie’s defiant spirit in the film. In one scene, when she is excluded from a business meeting with Bick and his fellow male ranchers, Leslie protests, until Bick sternly insists she leave the room. “That’s right,” she responds with fury. “Send the children on up to bed so the grown-ups can talk.” Graham claims that when today’s audiences see this scene for the first time, they find the level of the character’s militancy surprising.

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But it’s Giant’s take on Texan/Mexican relations that, I believe, will be of most interest to Trump-era readers. Bick sharply rebukes Leslie when she arrives at Reata, insisting she not fraternize with the brown-skinned help. Here too, Leslie balks. She is shocked and angered by the substandard quality of life the Hispanic population endures.

Author Don Graham is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly.

Years pass, and the tide turns. Bick and Leslie’s son, Jordy (played in the film by Dennis Hopper), marries Juana (Cárdenas), a young woman of Mexican lineage. In addition, Jordy decides he wants to leave the ranch to attend medical school, with the intention of serving the local Mexican-American community. All of this is to the chagrin of father Bick. Stevens filmed a scene briefly mentioned in the novel, in which Juana is refused service at a Texas beauty salon. But he and his screenwriters also included something not in Ferber’s book: a violent showdown between Bick and the proprietor of a roadside diner, who refuses service to a Mexican-American family. Graham, in discussing this sequence, stresses the film’s analogy to anti-African-American incidents in the Deep South. It’s an apt comparison, certainly, as much of the early civil rights movement would play itself out over segregated lunch counters. The author explains that director Stevens had seen firsthand the horrors to which bigotry could lead when he’d worked in Europe during the war years, shooting documentary footage:

He clearly had in mind a World War II–inflected narrative directed at Texas and America.

In the diner scene, a loud rendition of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” plays on the jukebox as middle-aged Bick confronts and is swiftly and brutally pummeled by the young bigot. I’ve heard (and sung) “Yellow Rose” throughout my life, but before reading Graham’s book, I was unaware that the song originally appeared in a minstrel show and that its original, unexpurgated lyrics celebrated the charms of a “high yeller” rose (i.e., a light-skinned African-American or biracial woman, seen as ripe for amorous attention by men — including socially dominant white men.)

Other facts and figures from Graham’s book will soon fade from my memory, but I am sure to permanently retain that disturbing detail.