An aptly named melodrama based on Edna Ferber’s novel, which probably goes unread today except by hardcore James Dean fans (copies of the book are on display at the James Dean Gallery in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana). Dean has a supporting role as Jett Rink (sounds like George Lucas named him), a lackadaisical cowhand who inherits a small patch of land from Mercedes McCambridge and strikes oil. Giant spans several decades, so we get to watch Dean wearing old-age makeup and trying to act fiftyish (to be fair, the guy was only 24). Despite the fact that Dean’s climactic, drunken speech to an empty hall was dubbed by another actor (a technical glitch rendered his dialogue inaudible, and Dean, being dead by then, couldn’t do ADR), Dean was posthumously nominated for an Oscar.
Aside from that speech, Dean has no James Dean Moments, the sort of daring, almost-but-not-quite-overacting his fans cherish. Dean shows some range as Jett — he’s not “misunderstood,” just looked down upon (until he gets rich) — yet the role as written gives him very little to project. Jett seems to symbolize how industrial growth disturbs those entrenched in “the old ways,” but the character doesn’t really go anywhere. Here’s James Dean in his last film, playing a part that could easily have been cut out without damaging the story much.
As for the movie itself, it’s 201 minutes about acceptance: northerners should accept the way Texans live; men should accept women’s right to join in political conversations; whites should accept Mexicans; macho men should accept their sons who want to become doctors instead of taking over the ranch; Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson should accept having a son who grows up to be Dennis Hopper. (This last may be the most difficult for anyone to accept.) Entertaining in a big-movie way, but very, very long; many scenes are expendable (one scene I wouldn’t cut is the Thanksgiving scene with the three little kids crestfallen at the idea of eating Pedro, the turkey they’d befriended).