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The film version of Giant (1956), Edna Ferber's epic, Texas-based tale about the Benedict family and their numerous internal conflicts over a twenty five year period, is famous for many things; It was Rock Hudson's first important dramatic role (He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), it marked a significant turning point in the film careers of two young actors, Dennis Hopper and Caroll Baker, and the movie earned ten Academy Award nominations and won the Academy Award for director George Stevens. However, Giant is best remembered as James Dean's final film. Like Hudson, it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but he never learned of the honor. Two weeks after his last scene for Giant was filmed, Dean was killed in an automobile accident while speeding in his Porsche 550 Spyder toward a road race in Salinas, California.
It was said that Edna Ferber's book was inspired by Texas oilman Glenn McCarthy who was a millionaire by age 26. Ferber had received numerous Hollywood offers to film her tenth novel but rejected them all in favor of George Stevens' proposal: he promised to remain completely faithful to her book. For locations, Stevens chose Marfa, Texas (The Benedict mansion was built at the Warner Bros. lot and shipped on five railroad flat cars to the set) and Virginia (the scenes on the Lynnton estate). The only other exterior scenes were filmed at the Statler Hotel in Los Angeles and the Lockheed Airport in Burbank.
Casting for the film generated much excitement within the film industry and for a while, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and William Holden were all mentioned as possibilities for the role of the rugged Texas rancher, Bick Benedict. Stevens decided it made some sense to cast a younger man in the role because it was easier to make a younger man look older instead of the reverse so he hired Rock Hudson (then 29). For the scenes where Hudson had to play Bick as an older man, he had to wear a 50 pound belt to give him a heavy, middle-aged appearance.
Grace Kelly was George Stevens' first choice for the female lead, Leslie Benedict, but Elizabeth Taylor was in second place. The director felt that Taylor was too young (she was 23 at the time) to handle the emotional range required for the role but finally asked Rock Hudson to make the choice and he picked Taylor. The two stars would enjoy a great working relationship on the set and their closeness prompted gossip columnists to spread a rumor that they were having an affair. The reports eventually reached Taylor's husband, actor Michael Wilding, who flew from London to the set to check in on his wife. But the relationship between Hudson and Taylor was completely innocent; they liked to party together and one of their favorite concoctions - a chocolate martini - almost made a cameo appearance in the film. The famous wedding scene where Taylor is attending her sister's ceremony and is surprised by Hudson's unexpected arrival was filmed after an all night drinking session between Taylor and Hudson. "In between takes," Hudson was fond of saying, "Elizabeth and I were running out and throwing up. We were both so hung over we couldn't speak. That's what made the scene."
For the role of Jett Rink, the poor dirt farmer who strikes it rich, Alan Ladd was the frontrunner but turned it down. Montgomery Clift was also considered, but Stevens felt his personal problems might interfere with the shooting schedule. Finally Stevens agreed to hire James Dean who was so desperate for the role he offered to work for a minimal salary. But almost from the beginning there was friction between the actor and the director. Stevens tried to break Dean of some of his Actors Studio mannerisms and demanded that the actor report to the set on time. In defiance, Dean would often hold up production for hours, causing the film to go over schedule. At one point, he was said to have ruined an outdoor scene by yelling "Cut!" and then unzipping his pants and urinating in full view of the crew and visitors on the set.
Hudson, who roomed briefly with Dean and co-star Chill Wills during filming, shared Stevens' dislike for his co-star. He felt that Dean's method of acting was completely self-absorbed to the point where he alienated his co-stars, offering no give and take in his performance. Of course, Dean had his defenders as well. In James Dean, author Val Holley wrote that when Edna Ferber visited the set, "Dean liked and charmed Ferber, trying to teach her some of the rope tricks he had mastered. She called him a "genius" and shrugged off his troubles with Stevens as "success poisoning," a syndrome she said she knew very well from the days when she had simultaneous hit shows on Broadway." Elizabeth Taylor also grew to love him and later said, "We would sometimes sit up until three in the morning, and he would tell me about his past, his mother, minister, his loves, and the next day he would just look straight through me as if he'd given away or revealed too much of himself. It would take....maybe a couple of days before we'd be back on friendship terms. He was very afraid to give of himself." The day after hearing about Dean's accident, the actress collapsed on the set and had to spend the next two weeks recovering in a hospital. (She was suffering from various health problems, including a leg infection and was also distraught over martial problems with Michael Wilding)
In the end, Giant proved to be a huge success. It was the number three box-office attraction of 1956, ended up on countless "Top Ten" best lists by film critics, and of course, scored Stevens his second Best Director Oscar (He won his first for A Place in the Sun, 1951).
Producer: George Stevens, Henry Ginsberg
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Fred Guiol
Production Design: Boris Leven
Cinematography: William Mellor
Costume Design: Marjorie Best
Film Editing: William W. Hornbeck
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Lynnton), Rock Hudson (Bick Benedict), James Dean (Jett Rink), Carrol Baker (Luz Benedict II), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Jane Withers (Vashti Synthe).
C-201m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford