The Resolution of a Lifespan: James Dean in ‘Giant’

In George Stevens’ western Giant, James Dean plays a character so desperate to belong that he winds up becoming a perverted reflection of it.

In only three films James Dean created for himself a legacy that would last over 60 years, and nothing used to piss me off more than that. For years I’d always seen Dean as just another character actor who died too early for anyone to realize what a terrible actor he really was. Surely, I thought, anyone could lean against doorframes and scratch at set-pieces and achieve the same level of success as he had in 1955-56. But recently I’ve had a change of heart: a change that came from a closer look at George Stevens’ western epic Giant (1956).

It was in Giant that I realized what it was about Dean that always rubbed me the wrong way: his directors. In East of Eden (1955), Dean’s breakthrough into mainstream Hollywood, Elia Kazan has him playing his prototypical self: a misunderstood loner who leans, scratches, chuckles, cries, and even blinks at every injustice and misplaced authority he can find. The film itself is no more engaging than Steinbeck’s own writing, but the novelty created in that film was evidently enough for Nicholas Ray to justify having Dean play a modern incarnation of the exact same character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Here, again, Dean leans, scratches, chuckles, and cries (more or less convincingly this time around) for the droves of enamored adolescent girls and mystified Mr. and Mrs. Caulfields (who just don’t get it). Rebel Without a Cause isn’t a bad movie by any means, but for much of the film, Jim (Dean) seems to serve as merely a functional character. In terms of his placement in the narrative, Jim Stark is a sort of diet Charles Foster Kane. We spend more of the runtime trying to understand the character than we do actually enjoying his story.

Then again, I may be sitting in the wrong audience. I never liked Catcher in the Rye, either.

I’d let these two films taint my view of Dean for so long that I had resigned myself to accept him as a pop figure: an icon of the zeitgeist, and nothing more. He was all pomp and no circumstances as far as I could see. But then I spent a little time with George Stevens’ Giant.

Stevens’ epic was released very literally a day late and a dollar short (its filming ran a year longer than planned and its budget was overdrawn), but the film shows this in the best way. Wide, long shots of barren Texas landscapes accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s sweeping musical score create a sense of hopeful melancholy at pivotal moments. Whether characters are well lit or shot in shadow, we never lose sight of Texas.

Indeed, the abundance of landscape cinematography signals to the viewer that this is not a story set in Texas, this is a story of Texas. Gordon Willis’ work on Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) mimics many of the ideas expressed by William C. Mellor’s cinematography in Giant. Visually we have a constant reminder that despite however beautiful and engaging the characters in the film may be, they will always be dwarfed by the world and circumstances around them.

Rock Hudson plays Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr., a powerful rancher in Reata, Texas. Elizabeth Taylor plays Leslie, a Maryland girl who marries Benedict for what she believes to be love. The narrative of the film focuses on their marriage and the social issues that creep up as they live through the first half of the 20th century. The film tackles social issues like racism tactfully (although it’s occasionally a bit more heavy-handed than I’d prefer), and its visual narrative of the corruptive nature of power echoes Charles Foster Kane. What I believed it did best, however, was illustrate the emergence of the modern woman.

Taylor was far more alluring for me than Dean. In Giant, Taylor explores one of her most developed (or should I say least superficial) roles. Leslie Benedict is such a firecracker that I almost forgive her for speaking like, well, Liz Taylor. Her character and performance have a clear agenda and a less-than-subtle way of handling it, but despite the hiccups, Taylor plays Benedict very believably. To no one’s surprise, Rock Hudson is at his Rock Hudsoniest. Despite his third-tier billing, however, it’s Dean who captures my attention more than any of the other Hollywood eye candy on the screen. In Jett Rink, Stevens, and by extension, Dean created his own Charles Foster Kane.

While his previous roles had focused on his stubborn refusal to conform to popular society, in Jett Rink, Dean plays a character so desperate to belong to popular society that he winds up becoming a perverted reflection thereof. In Jett Rink, Dean was given the freedom to fully express his range and talent. That range and talent contained more substance than I’d ever expected. Even his drunken performances seem to have evolved in the short months between Rebel and Giant. In Jim Stark, we see a character drinking to feel better. In Jett Rink we see a character drinking just to feel anything at all. Rink is at once disgusting and heartbreaking.

The credit doesn’t belong solely to Dean, however. It was George Stevens who realized the potential of the young actor (who, even at 23, could age as convincingly as Hudson). Rather than placing him in a role that audiences would romanticize and relate to, Stevens gave Dean an opportunity to challenge himself and his audience to become something more. In Giant, Dean grew up and forced his fans to do the same.

As with any epic, Giant requires enormous attention and an even more enormous attention span. There are lines, visual moments, and booming emotions that never find a resolution. Jett Rink has scattered around his home in Little Reata a number of self-improvement booklets. In one scene, Leslie picks up a little yellow book we can assume Jett has been using to teach himself to read and write English”“masterfully”. Despite this, the Jett Rink in hour three speaks no more clearly or eloquently than the Jett Rink in hour one. Does this parallel represent his ambition to succeed, or his failure to grow as a person? Do his sunglasses represent a loss of identity or adoption of one? Like any dense work of art, Giant asks more questions than it answers.

If you haven’t seen Giant in a while, it’s worth revisiting. Rebel Without a Cause may get all of the attention, but Stevens’ masterpiece is where all of the hype really comes from. We can only hope that Dean would’ve continued following the path tread by his final film, instead of taking comfort in the role of just another misunderstood teenage dirtbag.