Stellar script, Elizabeth Taylor sustain ‘Giant’ — TCM Film Festival in review
Thanks to the lesson I’d learned Friday night about making sure to get into line early enough for well-attended screenings, I abandoned my original plan to see “To Sir With Love” at noon on Saturday so I could get to Grauman’s Chinese by at least 12:45 to get set up for “Giant” (1956), appearing in a new restoration at 2 p.m.
I had wanted to see the silent World War I drama “The Big Parade” (1925) — also in a new restoration — but it was scheduled for 3 p.m. the same afternoon, so I had to decide between it and “Giant.” Though both movies are epic in scope, “Giant” somehow seemed like the film I would be more likely to regret having missed on the big screen. Given another couple of days to make up my mind, I might have gone with the King Vidor film.
The normal queuing area outside Grauman’s was still blocked off from Jane Fonda’s hand-and-footprint ceremony that morning, so passholders had to line up in the building next door that contains the TCL Chinese Multiplex. I had a queue number in the low 80s, enabling me to get set up in a section toward the middle of the theater, just about in the center of a row.
Before the movie, TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Jane Withers, who played Vashti Snythe. Though she was escorted onto the stage in a wheelchair, Withers, who had just turned 87 earlier in the month, was in fine voice. She explained that director George Stevens had seen her during a hospital stay, and told her she would be perfect for the role as Leslie’s best friend. When Stevens later telephoned her to formally offer her the part, she hung up, convinced someone was playing a practical joke.
When she did take the part, and filming began, she befriended James Dean by dismissing all the fuss being made over the young actor. Withers told a spellbound audience about how, during one of the regular parties she hosted for cast and crew members, she came upon a reclining Dean, with cowboy hat tipped so that it covered his eyes. “I said ‘Jimmy, is that you?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘How did you get in here?’ He had come in through the window. I said ‘Why didn’t you come in through the front door like everybody else?’ He said, ‘I didn’t want to see any of them, I came to see you.’ I said, ‘Well, will you use the front door next time?’ ”
Withers, who still prides herself on being handy with tools, said she nailed the windows shut to make sure Dean couldn’t enter that way again.
She then shared another memory of Dean, one that, I will admit, put tears in my eyes. She has told the story before, but somehow I hadn’t heard it until last Saturday at Grauman’s.
Dean was very fond of a pink shirt, and wanted to wear it every day. Withers noticed that the shirt had started to stink; Dean said he didn’t want to send it to the laundry because he worried that it would be lost, as other shirts of his had been. So the actress agreed to wash his shirt each night, and he came by and picked it up every day.
Dean gave her the shirt for the last time on the night of Sept. 29, 1955. She washed it, but Dean didn’t pick it up the next morning. He was going to be in a car race on Sept. 30, and told her to hang on to the shirt, and it would still be fresh when he wanted to wear it the following day. Withers said he had asked her to come see him race many times, but she was always afraid that he drove too fast. “I had a terrible feeling” about Dean that day, she explained, and prayed for her friend’s safety. Dean was killed that afternoon, and Withers has held on to the pink shirt ever since.
Also during the interview, Withers said she’s tired of “the tacky things they do” in modern movies.
Like so many of the other movies I saw at the festival, “Giant” took on different dimensions for me in the company of an audience. The script, by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat from the mammoth Edna Ferber novel, seemed much wittier and funnier than I’d remembered.
While most of the critical acclaim among the actors seems to go to Dean, I think it is Elizabeth Taylor as the strong-willed Leslie (Lynton) Benedict who truly carries the picture. Leslie is the character who triggers just about every moment of growth for the rather dense Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), from the early scenes in Maryland when he is courting her, until the final reel, when basic pride in his own blood stirs the middle-aged Texan to resist bigotry.
Taylor does it all here. She is by turns strident, sexy, funny, willful and sharp. When Leslie challenges Bick during their courtship by asking him if Texas was stolen from Mexico, she serves notice that she is no empty-headed beauty. When Bick’s ill-fated sister Luz tries to bully her into a secondary role, it doesn’t take long for Leslie to assert herself, and for an actress who was then only 23, Taylor shows a maturity that allows her to believably portray the strength in the woman. Taylor is supreme in a scene when Bick and his friends try to exclude Leslie from a discussion of politics. “Set up my spinning wheel, girls,” she says to the other wives in room, who have stayed in the background. “I’ll join the harem section in a minute.” Later in the same scene, she calls the men “cavemen,” saying they “ought to be wearing leopard skins and carrying clubs.”
When Bick is ready to continue the argument in the bedroom, Leslie defuses the situation, first with wit (“You knew what a dreadful girl I was when you married me. I did not deceive you, sir. From the first moment I couldn’t have been more unpleasant.”) and smoldering sexuality. “Come on, pardner,” she says, smiling. “Why don’t you kick off your spurs?” The whole scene had the Grauman’s audience laughing.
Taylor is somewhat hampered in her later scenes by makeup intended to make her look like a woman in her 50s, but after a few minutes the steely resolve in her Leslie overcomes the greasepaint. She should have received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
It’s also easy to see why Jett Rink (Dean) is so mesmerized by Taylor’s Leslie, to the point of wanting to improve himself, and build an empire, all for a woman he knows he cannot have. Taylor and Dean are very good in a scene in which Leslie comes out to visit Dean on the plot of land left to him by the departed Luz. She offers no comment when she sees a picture of herself in her wedding dress that Jett has put up to “decorate” his house, and even compliments him on the terrible tea he has made. Taylor subtly indicates that she understands the man’s obsession, but doesn’t feel threatened by it.
Another standout is Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley, who dispenses various insights on the Benedicts’ plight throughout. Wills got several hearty laughs from the Grauman’s audience. After Jett strikes oil and has a physical confrontation with Bick, Wills drawls, “Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill.”
As for Dean, I’ve always thought he did seem convincing as the middle-aged Jett; it helps that the character becomes a pathetic drunk, affording the actor a chance to play broadly — stumbling around, slurring his speech and finally tumbling headlong over a banquet table.
One of the key themes in the film is the way that Bick gradually learns that Mexicans are people, too — something his rival Jett never understands. I found myself wondering how much flak Stevens must have taken in 1956 for suggesting that women had a right to discuss politics and other matters on an equal basis with men, and that people shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of skin color. It’s a research project for a future post.
The restored print of “Giant” looked very good, considering the difficulty Warner Bros. faced in dealing with Eastmancolor, the color process used on so many feature films during the period. Many scenes looked quite sharp, while others seemed rather blurry; sometimes this variation could be spotted within the same scene.
George Feltenstein, senior VP of marketing for Warner Home Video’s classic catalog, discussed the obstacles involved in an interview with Reveal Shot last week.
– David B. Wilkerson