A noted authority on all things Texas, Graham (English/Univ. of Texas, Austin; State of Minds: Texas Culture and Its Discontents, 2011, etc.) turns his attention to film with this authoritative tale of “Big Texas Oil” and the epic movie Giant (1956).
At the “top of his game” after A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953), George Stevens, the film’s “often inscrutable” director, was anxious to film Edna Ferber’s latest novel, Giant, about a Texas ranching empire and the clash between old ranch aristocracy and the new breed of oilmen. Hollywood was abuzz as the cast took shape. For the main part of Bick Benedict, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston, and Errol Flynn, among others, were passed over for Rock Hudson, who was popular with teenagers. For the role of Bick’s wife, Leslie, Stevens “had his heart set on Audrey Hepburn” and then Grace Kelly, but Elizabeth Taylor got the role: “Stevens didn’t choose Taylor so much as she chose him.” Alan Ladd, Marlon Brando, and Richard Burton were passed over for a young actor with “little-boy wounds…brash bad-boy behavior and exposed nerve endings,” the “rebel,” James Dean, as the “surly, resentful ranch hand Jett Rink.” Dean died during production. Graham recounts in detail filming in the small, still-segregated-by-“custom” town of Marfa, whose citizens would soon learn that the film was a “powerful indictment of racial intolerance in Texas, and in the United States.” Peppered throughout are lively profiles of the crew and actors, which also included Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker. Cultural critic Rebecca Solnit called Giant “a freak: a wildly successful mid-1950s Technicolor film about race, class, and gender from a radical perspective, with a charismatic, unsubjugated woman at the center.” As Graham notes, the film “keeps finding new ways to speak to Americans across the decades.” Stevens won an Academy Award; Hudson and Dean got best actor nominations.
A readable, delightful work of film/cultural history for movie fans.