Thursday, June 18, 2009

And it doesn't even have a beanstalk!

Gone With The Wind. Duel in the Sun. The Big Country. Giant.

Surely you recognize all those titles. They're the big, colossal white elephants none of us are supposed to like but most of us probably do. They don't get discussed much on the movie blogs because they're big, bloated, melodramas and everyone knows that when discussing melodrama on a movie blog it should be in black and white (but color is allowed for those made in the fifties and anything directed by Douglas Sirk), come in under two hours, and have nothing whatsoever to do with wide-open swaths of land. Think Stella Dallas, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Imitation of Life. If you happen to love melodrama (I do) then you probably already know that it is a sometimes denigrated genre. At the same time everyone still agrees there are some great ones in the mix, like those mentioned two sentences before. But the epic melodramas? Those are the ones we're supposed to make fun of, right? Well... Thing is, I like a lot of them and all this started swirling around in my head thanks to this photo in my possession from 1951:

That's George Stevens, Elizabeth Taylor (duh) and Ivan Moffat, the director, star and associate producer for A Place in the Sun. Later, in 1955, they would work together on Giant, released in 1956. And all of this is simply to say, I like Giant. Yeah, that's pretty much it. There won't be any big write-up on the rules of melodrama and white elephant melodrama and epic weepies. Nope. It's just that when I looked at the photo I remembered how much I liked Giant.

I believe the main strength of Giant lies with George Stevens direction which gives the slow meandering action a steady clipped pace so the viewer doesn't notice that, quite honestly, it's all very slow and meandering. Action and plotwise, nothing much happens in this movie but you wouldn't know it from Stevens direction. He's got the editing and photography down like no other, knowing to keep everything in medium shot 80 percent of the time, pull out to wideshot for isolation metaphors and emotional distance and use the closeup sparingly for menacing impact. And there's not a lot of empty quiet space between shots either. It may be dialogue free for many of those spots but it's not empty because Stevens is focusing on a look, or a leer, from Mercedes McCambridge or James Dean. And Stevens holds all those actors, and their differing styles, together through all of it, achieving a consistency in performance that keeps the viewer from noticing the jarring contrast between the high energy acting of Dean and the laid back delivery of Hudson.

And that takes us to the second strength, the acting. Not only does everyone acquit themselves quite admirably in this (and yes, I do think Rock Hudson is good in it - you got a problem with that?), especially Dean and McCambridge who are both superb, but they do so under the most ridiculous make-up conditions ever imposed on a big budget Hollywood movie. Latex, wigs and putty? Ha! You're joking right? No, no none of that here. Dean, Taylor and Hudson all age by having gray paint sprayed on their heads and someone in the makeup department grabbing a mascara pencil and drawing age lines under their eyes. Yes, fifteen years prior, Orson Welles went through hours of make-up application as he portrayed the aging Charles Foster Kane and somehow, almost two decades later, movie makeup had devolved into browsing the Benjamin Moore aisle at the hardware store and raiding the script girl's makeup bag.

Also, and this is not to be underestimated, Liz and Rock play characters named Leslie and Jordan Benedict, Jr (his nickname is Bick) and Jimmy's character is named Jett Rink. Just try and forget that character name. Go ahead, try. If you never see this movie again for fifty years and someone asks, "Hey, what was James Dean's character's name in Giant?" without breaking your stride you'll confidently reply, "Jett Rink." And then possibly you'll pull up the collar on your leather jacket, comb your hair back and say to your companion, "Let's blow this Popsicle stand." You will do this because just uttering the name "Jett Rink" will make you feel almost unnervingly cool.

And then there's that scene. You know... that scene. The one where Jett shows up covered in oil and starts spouting off to Bick and Leslie that he done struck it big and now he's a gonna be a rich'un, just like they are. And then Leslie tries to act happy for him but he so completely creeps her out that she just wants to run and Bick just wants to smash his face in. Yeah, that scene. Man, that scene rocks.

Finally, there's the finale, and as the first word in this sentence is "finally" I suppose it is only fitting that the last word is "finale." The finale of Jett Rink, drunken and bitter, as he mumbles a bunch of crap by himself in a big conference room that no one could understand anyway even if they had been listening. The lines spoken by Dean were unintelligible since his head was down for most of it and had to be redubbed by Nick Adams after Dean's death.

And lest I forget, Dennis Hopper plays the son of Rock and Liz and his character is named Jordan Benedict III. Seriously, Dennis Hopper plays someone named Jordan Benedict the Third.

So there you have it. Giant is a great big sprawling piece of entertainment with sharp direction, fine performances and a melodramatic script. If you've got the time, it's an enrich'un experience.