Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lady Diana: A Supreme Movie Debut



In November 2017 the American Music Awards bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Miss Diana Ross, and it was a triumphant moment—dazzlingly attired, with a voluminous cape resembling a rare bird’s plumage, Ross commanded the stage for a brief medley of her greatest hits, and it was almost like the old days. We had not seen The Boss sparkle like that for a long time.

Miss Ross has been a star for more than half a century—first as the incandescent apex of an iconic girl group and later as a spectacular solo act and legendary diva. But it was her startling film debut, playing another celebrated singer of yesteryear, that cemented her position as the enduring superstar she remains to this day.


Not all singers are meant to be movie stars, too. (Just ask Madonna and Mariah.) But Diana is, and basically on the strength of just one very successful film performance. In Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Diana Ross proved herself an actress and a force to be reckoned with. It took drive, guts and real talent to portray the troubled jazz singer Billie Holliday, as Ross did to universal acclaim.

It was Motown Records and a singing trio called the Supremes that launched Detroit native Diana Ross on the road to stardom. Before they were Supremes, they had been called the Primettes. As a Primette, young Diana sang backup with her friend Mary Wilson while big boned, trumpet-voiced Florence Ballard dominated as lead singer.

Of course, as soon as they were signed by Motown and Berry Gordy and renamed the Supremes, it was decided that pretty, waiflike Diana was the one whose star power shone brightest, and she was made lead singer and central focus of the group. Florence Ballard never recovered from that demotion; she eventually left the group and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong; Ballard died at age 32 in 1976.

Florence, Mary, Diana

Mary, Diana, Cindy
The story of the fabled 1960s girl group was dramatized in the fictionalized Broadway musical Dreamgirls, made into a 2006 film starring Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx. (Sometimes fiction and myth can tell a story even more effectively than the facts.)

Diana left the Supremes in 1970 (replaced by Jean Terrell and plunging the remaining group members into relative obscurity) and producer Berry Gordy focused all his promotional—and personal—energies on Diana and her career. Though Gordy and Diana did carry carry on an on-again, off-again affair (Gordy is now acknowledged as the father of Diana’s daughter Rhonda, born in 1971), their prime focus was always on the Diana Ross brand—and their collaboration on their dream film project, the Billie Holliday musical biography.

Diana Ross and Berry Gordy

Helmed by director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File) but closely supervised by Gordy, Lady Sings the Blues is a multilayered and satisfying film on so many levels. It is at once a timeless romance, an epic period musical spanning the age of Tin Pan Alley to the Big Band era, a frank exploration of 20th century racism, and a harrowing look at crippling drug addiction.

As the talented and tragic Lady Day, Diana Ross is mesmerizing. Not only does she sing more than a dozen of Holliday’s iconic hits and classic standards, Ross imbues those songs with deeper meaning, relating them to Holliday’s personal troubles and addictions, appearing to perform under the influence of heroin and alcohol, as Holliday too often did—indeed, that may have been a part of her magic. (Interestingly, throughout her career, Billie Holliday had been criticized for her thin, reedy voice; the same charge had often been leveled at Diana Ross herself.)



Diana Ross as Billie Holliday

Obviously a natural Method actor, Ross is equally raw and real in the dramatic scenes, as she believably portrays the performer from her young teenage years to adulthood and struggles with a growing dependence on heroin and the rigors of life on the road.

The film is absorbing and entertaining, with surprisingly poignant moments that use Holliday’s music to illustrate evocative and disturbing scenes (the “Strange Fruit” montage brings to life the horror of the lynchings in the South), yet leavening its sober subject matter with occasional lightness and humor, as in the comedic bordello sequence with veteran character actor Scatman Crothers as Big Ben.

The film also features a memorable supporting turn by Richard Pryor as the kindhearted and humorous Piano Man, who  befriends and helps Billie get her career started but finds himself as hopelessly addicted to the White Lady as Lady Day herself.

Richard Pryor as Piano Man

Billy Dee Williams as Louis Mackay

As a silver screen couple, Diana Ross met her romantic match in suave, dreamy Billy Dee Williams, playing Holliday’s longtime love Louis Mackay, who drifts in and out of the singer’s life, unable to help her kick the drug habit and settle down to a healthier, happier, normal life. (I always thought of Williams as the black Omar Sharif, because his character reminded me of Nicky Arnstein in a musical biopic set in the same era, Funny Girl).

Ross’s bravura performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, putting her in that very small group of African American actors to be so honored. In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge had been the first African American Best Actress Oscar nominee, making Ross and fellow 1972 nominee Cicely Tyson (for Sounder) the second and third, respectively. (Halle Berry would become the first African American Best Actress Oscar winner, three decades later.)

The film’s screenplay was also honored by the Academy. (And Motown’s Suzanne de Passe was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Lady Sings the Blues.)


The night of the Oscars, Liza Minnelli won the gold as the iconic Sally Bowles in the innovative, groundbreaking Bob Fosse musical Cabaret. If Liza had not been nominated, Diana would surely have won that Best Actress Academy Award; polls had the two women neck-in-neck in the Oscar horse race. (Liza has said that she was certain that Diana would win that night.)

Lady Sings the Blues was the peak of the Ross film career, but would an Oscar win have changed its trajectory? Mahogany (costarring Billy Dee again) would prove a critical disaster and The Wiz (with Michael Jackson) a box office bomb. (But then again, Ms. Minnelli endured flop after flop after winning that Oscar as well—A Matter of Time, Lucky Lady and New York, New York were all ignominious failures.)

Over the years, Ross was announced for a number of interesting projects, most notably The Bodyguard opposite Ryan O’Neal (made years later with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner), but ended up, to date, never making another feature film after The Wiz.

It’s a shame that Miss Ross has appeared in so few films after such an auspicious debut, but the strength of that one performance is undeniable, and the film holds up well more than 45 years later.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

George Bailey, The Everyman's Holiday Hero



Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a yearly holiday tradition for me; I faithfully watch it every Christmas Eve. As someone who often suffers from melancholy and sadness during this supposedly joyful time of the year—and I know I am not alone—I look forward to this film as an annual year-end experience of personal catharsis and healing.

The hero’s journey taken by protagonist George Bailey, played with such natural grace by the great James Stewart, has a lot in common with the odyssey each and every one of us takes year after year in real life, with its fears and shadows as well as magical little moments of love and joy.

Life is hard and filled with challenges for everyone, rich and poor alike. How Stewart’s George Bailey handles the slings and arrows is real, imperfect, heartbreaking, but ultimately an enlightening and redemptive experience.



James Stewart as George Bailey

Nominated for five Academy Awards and cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, with beautifully written script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Diary of Anne Frank, Father of the Bride) and directed by the great Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), It’s a Wonderful Life is about as far from a lighthearted holiday romp as you can get. It is a very dark and disturbing tale of suicide and bankruptcy and broken dreams. Indeed, it was a box office failure when it first premiered during the 1946 holiday season.

But at the film’s climax, the darkness and cynicism give way to light and hope—director Capra gives his audiences a heartwarming conclusion that has the power to rekindle even a long burnt-out faith. Often accused of over-the-top sentimentalism, Frank Capra’s steadfast idealism is as relevant and practical today as it was in post-WWII America. Little things like kindness and gentleness don’t just mean a lot, they are everything.  And we need happy endings.

The story is iconic. On Christmas Eve, a discouraged and desperate small town man is at the end of his rope. A miraculous series of events changes his life and attitude forever.  At the apex of the story is the character of George Bailey, played by James Stewart.


Bobby Anderson as Young George

Lionel Barrymore as Potter

Stewart was 38 years old when he made It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, but believably plays the character of George over a span of nearly 20 years. He had already been a top Hollywood star for more than a decade, having won an Academy Award for his role as the sardonic yet bighearted Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

Beloved by movie audiences as an everyman, (indeed, he had already proven himself the ideal Capra leading man in the title role of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Stewart was the perfect actor to bring to life the flawed character of small town denizen George Bailey, acting as a stand-in for every audience member who ever felt trapped in his or her own life, cheated of dreams that did not come true despite their best efforts. 

Stewart’s Oscar-worthy performance was recognized by the Academy, and he deservedly received one of his five Best Actor nominations for the role of George Bailey. It was the actor’s most mature and intense work to date, and served as a gateway to more serious mature roles to come, including four Hitchcock classics culminating in Vertigo.

Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody (AS2)
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey

As the wise director did in all his great films, Capra surrounds his leading man with a brilliant ensemble of skilled character actors who bring the story to vivid life with their unforgettable performances. Lionel Barrymore (Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel), eldest of the famed acting dynasty, brother to John and Ethel and great uncle to Drew, is evil personified as the cruel and miserly Mr. Potter; Henry Travers (The Bells of St. Mary's) has a scene stealing turn as Clarence the angel, adding a bit of humorous leavening to the proceedings; Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, Pocketful of Miracles) is dotty Uncle Billy, and Beulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow, Tammy and the Doctor) is George’s sweet mother. Lovely Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), is, of course, perfect as George's faithful wife.

I’m not usually fan of young actors portraying the star in flashback, but the device works well here in the prologue, where Young George played by Robert J. Anderson (The Bishop's Wife) is responsible for my first flood of tears, when his ears are boxed by a drunken, grieving H.B. Warner (King of Kings).

Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey

All the great actors’ fine moments in this film are too numerous to mention, but Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Sheldon Leonard, Lillian Randolph, Frank Faylen and Todd Karnes each contribute to the iconic moments that tug at the heart and make us smile.

At the center, though, is James Stewart’s intense and complex performance as the conflicted George Bailey. Despite George’s heart of gold, his easy charm, sense of humor, kindness and generosity, the odds seem stacked against him and his gradual descent into bitterness and despair takes the audience on a journey into their own souls, their own gallery of deep disappointments and unrequited desires.


"Merry Christmas!"

The moment near the end of the picture where George bows his head and prays, sobbing “I want to live again” triggers the same reaction in me year after year; I am choked up and awash with tears, every time, never fails. Perhaps it’s my way of letting go of the frustrations and disappointments and pain of the previous year and facing the new one with some hope and optimism, grateful to have friends, family, a roof over my head, etc.

For me and millions of others, It’s a Wonderful Life provides an annual ritual of release, a good cry that leaves us feeling happy, refreshed and ready to face the world anew as the New Year dawns. That’s more than enough to make James Stewart, Frank Capra and company inspiring heroes in my book.



This blog is part of the Inspiring Heroes Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a joyous new year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Funny, Talented, Beautiful Girl


Last December, I finally got to see Barbra Streisand perform live, after a lifetime of loving and idolizing her. La Streisand was truly divine, in full command of her voice and her talents, and transported us through a half century of her greatest hits, including a few of the famous Christmas songs she had not sung for decades. It was magical. (That concert tour, "The Music, The Mem'ries, The Magic" is now available on Netflix and iTunes.) Every Christmas season, I listen to that classic Christmas album, and also find time to watch the delightful movie Funny Girl (1968), which I first saw during a long-ago holiday season.

Barbra Streisand was launched as an international superstar in her film debut, the big-screen version of her 1964 Broadway triumph. The songstress was already a best-selling recording artist and a Broadway star, with several CBS television specials under her belt, but movies are an entirely different animal. The Jule Styne and Bob Merrill musical is a rags-to-riches tale of Tin Pan Alley-era entertainer Fanny Brice, whose trajectory from Henry Street in Brooklyn to the Ziegfeld Follies and international stardom failed to bring her personal happiness and fulfillment.


Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice as Barbra Streisand...building a character and her own legend

The leap from stage to television to screen was helped by the fact that the Broadways musical’s songs were already hits by the time the film was released, thanks to Barbra’s rerecordings of “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on her already spectacularly successful record albums. Barbra herself had been introduced to TV audiences, first through guest shots on variety hours including a notable appearance on The Judy Garland Show, then through the series of CBS specials she headlined herself starting in 1965.

Directed by the great William Wyler (The Little Foxes, The Heiress), with musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross (The Turning Point, Steel Magnolias), Funny Girl gave Streisand an auspicious and audacious film debut. Barbra gets the full star treatment in this old-fashioned backstage musical romance, costumed by Oscar-winning designer Irene Sharaff and cast opposite Egypt-born heartthrob Omar Sharif, who had made international 1960s audiences swoon with his handsome presence in the epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago.

Photographed by veteran cameraman Harry Stradling, a favorite among actresses because he always painstakingly lit each of his leading ladies to look their very best, the Stradling treatment sets Streisand’s unusual features aglow, unveiling to the world her unique beauty in widescreen splendor.

A beautiful reflection: Director of photography Harry Stradling highlighted Streisand's unusual, unique features

In a movie year that included innovative fare including the groundbreaking sci-fi alleghory Planet of the Apes and the startling study of contemporary evil Rosemary’s Baby, Funny Girl is a throwback to showbiz biopics made 10 to 20 years earlier, including Words and Music and Love Me or Leave Me. But it works because it is a vehicle for a timeless, contemporary, new breed of star, an exciting new personality who is clearly headed for a bright future; Streisand is timeless, at home in front of the camera, and also a solid actor with remarkable comic timing, real romantic chemistry with costar Sharif and a vulnerability that registered perfectly on the movie screen if not in real life. (Tales of Streisand being a  difficult diva—willful, narcissistic, exacting and perfectionistic and tough—begin right here on this picture.)

Good-looking Arab boy meets nice Jewish girl: Sharif and Streisand

The movie itself is solid and entertaining, and also contains one of Omar Sharif’s finest performances as well, as the ne’er do well Nick Arnstein (though the pairing of Jewish Barbra and the Arab Omar caused some controversy in the Middle East). Kay Medford and Walter Pidgeon lend memorable support as Mama Brice and Flo Ziegfeld, but Funny Girl is clearly, unmistakably Streisand’s picture. There’s little room for anyone or anything else. (Beautiful actress Anne Francis’s role as Fanny’s sardonic showgirl confidante was all but cut out of the film, for example, to make more room for Barbra’s singing and emoting.

Duelling divas: Streisand and Garland harmonize

And it is indeed a rich, satisfying and startling film performance. Not since Judy Garland had there been a musical star so vibrant, so versatile, so in command in front of the camera. Garland had been galvanized, inspired and challenged by the youngster’s talents during that memorable 1963 guest appearance. Judy herself had been considered an unconventional Hollywood beauty as well, feeling like an ugly duckling next to costars like Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr at MGM.


"I'm the Greatest Star" —and she wasn't kidding
Streisand won the coveted Academy Award that year for her performance as Fanny Brice. Though she shared the award in a tie with Katharine Hepburn (Kate’s third of an eventual FOUR Best Actress statuettes), the film veteran didn’t show up at the ceremonies, leaving Barbra the spotlight on Oscar night. She accepted her Academy Award in a chic see-through miniskirt creation designed by Arnold Scaasi.

Winning an acting Oscar for your film debut is unusual; for a musical performance, even more rarified. Three years earlier, Julie Andrews had won Best Actress for her film debut in the musical Mary Poppins, and 20 years later Jennifer Hudson would win a Supporting Oscar for her first film, the movie version of Dreamgirls.

Golden-voiced singer, Academy Award-winning Best Actress

Streisand would win a second Academy Award in 1976 as composer of the Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” (this time sharing the honor with Paul Williams) from her film A Star Is Born, but the only other time she would be nominated for her acting (so far!) would be for The Way We Were in 1973.

In the inimitable Hollywood way of attempting to cash in on itself, Streisand’s next two films would also be in the old-school musical vein. Barbra was rushed into two more musicals back to back, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and Hello, Dolly, with not-always stellar results, proving that the epic  movie musical was approaching its death throes...but Barbra’s triumphant career was only just beginning. She jumped into the 1970s with a series of fine performance in more contemporary fare including The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc. Years later, Streisand very reluctantly reprised her role of Fanny Brice in the inferior sequel Funny Lady to fulfill a contract obligation with Ray Stark, the producer who had paved her road to stardom with Funny Girl (and happened to be married to Fanny Brice’s daughter Fran).

Her tour de force film debut took Hollywood and the world by storm, and the indefatigable Barbra has remained an A-List superstar ever since.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Devil and Johnny Depp




 A film lover’s Halloween would not be complete without an annual horror movie film festival—mine usually lasts the entire month of October, as the genre is near and dear to my heart. And so is the devilishly attractive Mr. Johnny Depp, so I knew exactly which film I wanted to celebrate this year.

Though not on a scale with modern horror masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and The Shining (all among my favorite films), the 1999 Roman Polanski/Johnny Depp collaboration The Ninth Gate is one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s a movie with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, a darkly comic romp chock full of accoutrements that horror film fans hold dear, including a few spectacularly ghastly murder sequences that plant it firmly in the horror category.

Based upon the 1993 novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate pays clever homage to Polanski’s earlier successes, with nods both to Rosemary and to Chinatown, which in turn was deeply influenced by John Huston’s classic The Maltese Falcon. At its heart, it is a mystery thriller adventure brought to life through archetypal characters, played by wonderful actors against a picturesque European backdrop. 



Johnny Depp as Dean Corso

The plot centers around a seductive Black Widow whose über-wealthy husband has just hanged himself, but not before selling her most prized possession, a book that’s purported to summon the Devil. The super-rich businessman who has purchased the supposed magick talisman engages rare book detective Dean Corso to track down the other existing copies to authenticate his own. Cue the cat-and-mouse!
 
A calm, cool and collected Johnny Depp forms the apex of the proceedings, despite the drama and treachery he finds himself immersed in. This is one of Depp’s best performances—his understated interpretation of freelance rare book dealer Dean Corso is quietly magnetic, a far cry from his blustering Captain Jack Sparrow and over-the-top Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka. As a shrewd and brilliant buyer and seller of rare books, Depp’s Corso is a mercenary—heartless and inscrutable, his handsome face a mask— we don’t know what he’s thinking and that is exciting indeed.

Frank Langella as Boris Balkan

The marvelous Frank Langella gives one of his most florid and unrestrained performances as Boris Balkan, the wealthy book collector who hires Corso to compare his copy of the book to two others. It’s clear Langella’s having a ball being bad, especially against the self-possessed and taciturn Corso as skillfully underplayed by Depp.
 
Lena Olin has one of her best roles as a modern-day film noir femme fatale, in the grand tradition of leading ladies from Mary Astor to Rita Hayworth to Faye Dunaway. As deadly ice queen Liana St. Martin Telfer, Olin wants her magickal tome back and will stop at nothing to obtain it, beginning with sexual favors, progressing to scratching and biting Depp with leonine ferocity, and finally knocking him cold with a vicious conk on the head—no postcoital cuddling for this Black Widow!

Lena Olin as Liana St. Martin Telfer
Emmanuelle Seigneur as..."the Girl"

Emmanuelle Seigneur, the wife and muse of director Polanski since the late 1980s, is effective as the mysterious girl who shadows and shepherds Corso throughout his journey, from New York to Spain to Paris and the French countryside. (Indeed, Seigneur’s enigmatic character and the fast-paced Parisian chase scenes recall her debut film with Polanski, Frantic starring Harrison Ford.)

Made the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the themes of elites indulging in orgiastic and occult rituals to gain power, pleasure and influence are also apparent here, albeit in a more satirical fashion, with Depp, Olin and company donning campy black cloaks in the obligatory Black Mass sequence for the love of Lucifer. 





All in all, it’s an exciting adventure, the steadily building suspense punctuated by murder, metaphysics and the quirky performances of an international cast of marvelous character actors including Barbara Jefford, James Russo and José López-Rodero, hurtling to a satisfying if not startling climax.

Though it’s chiefly a comic mystery thriller with supernatural overtones, The Ninth Gate is laden with more than enough occult motifs to please the die-hard horror buff. And if you’re a fan of the star, you’ll get a kick out of Depp’s dabblings in the Dark Arts.

All that, and a little eye candy too!

Happy Halloween!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Big Talents, Giant Movie


My sister and her family recently moved to Dallas, so I’ve had the opportunity to visit there a couple of times. I had a blast there, and confirmed for myself the old aphorism that “everything’s big in Texas”: big guns, big food, big hair, big smiles and big Southern hospitality. And, of course, big pride for a great state that was once the biggest in the union.

The 1956 film Giant captures the expansive spirit of the Lone Star state, and in fact probably had a lot to do with creating that Texas mythos that still endures today. The aptly-named film is epic, sprawling and grand, Giant in every respect. From the majestic strains of Dmitri Tiomkin’s powerful score, to cinematographer William C. Mellor’s moody lighting, big skies and Texas sunsets, to George Stevens’s skilled direction of some of the most talented and legendary actors on the planet, Giant is more than a movie; it’s a force to be reckoned with—not unlike the state itself.

Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Lynnton Benedict

Based on the 1952 historical novel by Edna Ferber (Show Boat, So Big), Giant is several movies rolled into one—a multi-generational saga of the fictional Benedict dynasty; a boy-meets-girl/battle of the sexes romance; a political soap opera, and a modern Western. Director Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told, A Place in the Sun) seemed to include every detail of Ferber’s 400-page tome up there on the screen in the film’s 3 hour and 21 minute running time. 

Rock Hudson as Jordan "Bick" Benedict

The film captures the spirit and flavor of Texas, with its frequent historical references to Carrie Nation, San Jacinto and the Alamo, and Tiomkin’s score is peppered with the familiar folk tunes including “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Us” and of course “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Giant delves into politics as well, exploring Texas’s uneasy relationship with Mexico (which continues to this day) and Texans’ poor treatment of the Mexicans who serve them. Both rich and poor Texans (Bick Benedict and Jett Rink) are prejudiced against the subservient people they call “wetbacks,” while an enlightened newcomer (Leslie Benedict) shows them kindness, generosity and compassion. 

James Dean as Jett Rink

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the most at the time since Gone With the Wind (to which it is often compared), George Stevens deservedly won the Oscar for Best Director that year.

Unlike GWTW, which was filmed completely on a studio backlot, exteriors of Giant were filmed on location in the western town of Marfa, where the townsfolk became extras and bit players in the film and rubbed elbows with Jimmy, Rock and Liz, attending the daily rushes at the local movie house and enjoying after-dinner musicales at the town’s only hotel--enjoying their fleeting five minutes of fame before settling back down into obscurity. (The 1981 play and film Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean provides some imaginative fictional backstory on the location filming of the classic.)  

Mercedes McCambridge as "Madama" Luz Benedict
Giant boasts unforgettable performances by three of Hollywood’s biggest stars, supported by one of the most accomplished and talented casts in film history.

Elizabeth Taylor received top billing as the steely Leslie Benedict, loving matriarch of the rowdy Benedict clan. Director George Stevens had been among the first to nurture the latent talents of the violet-eyed sensation, whom he had cast as socialite Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun several years before. As the object of Montgomery Clift’s obsession, Taylor had turned in a subtle and unexpectedly multilayered performance. Thus Stevens saw more in Elizabeth than just a pretty face and figure, taking the child star-turned-glamour girl seriously as an actress. 

Carroll Baker as young Luz Benedict

In recent years, Taylor had had almost no opportunity to sharpen those budding acting chops during her indentured servitude at MGM, who usually cast her as arm candy for stars like Van Johnson and Robert Taylor in dull melodramas. A sparkling performance as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Father of the Bride was an exception, but high spots like that had been few and far between. Giant was a turning point in Taylor’s career.

Dennis Hopper as Jordie Benedict

For Giant, Taylor and costars Rock Hudson and James Dean would all be required to age more than 25 years over the course of the epic saga, believably playing the older generation to film newcomers Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper, who were around the same age as Dean himself (he was 24 at the time). Rather than employing rubber prosthetics and over-the-top age makeup, Stevens wisely chose to suggest the future maturity of his young stars with a bit of silver in their hair and a few lines around the eyes and mouth. (Jimmy would never live to see his 50s, of course, and both Rock and Elizabeth aged a little bit less gracefully than their Benedict counterparts.) 

Jane Withers as Vashti Snythe

Though Taylor did not receive an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her role of Leslie Benedict, Giant opened that door and served as a transition to important adult roles. She would be nominated for the Oscar the next four years running—for Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Butterfield 8, which finally won her the coveted statuette. (She would win a second Oscar six years later for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.) In 1970, Taylor would work with director Stevens one more time, appearing opposite Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town, but the film would not be a success. 

Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley
For Rock Hudson, Giant was a career milestone and elevated his status from leading man to superstar after lending broad-shouldered support and bolstering the sex appeal of stars like Jane Wyman (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession). As Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Hudson would receive his first and only Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. (Both he and costar James Dean, who was nominated posthumously, would lose to Yul Brynner as the iconic king of Siam).

East of Eden had made moody James Dean the new Marlon Brando, and the soon-to-be-released teen melodrama Rebel Without a Cause would forever change the trajectory of the apple-pie 1950s, partially because of the untimely death of its star on September 30, 1955, just 10 days after he finished his work on Giant.  In this his third film, James Dean solidifies his image as the symbol of tortured youth as surly yet vulnerable ranch hand Jett Rink. In contrast to handsome leading man Hudson, Dean is all animal magnetism and overt sexuality in tight-fitting blue jeans and shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skulking round Reata Ranch wearing his cowboy hat over his eyes. 

Rod Taylor as David Karfrey
 James Dean was not the only Method actor on the film. The same year as Giant, Carroll Baker stunned Hollywood with her portrayal of Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, and would later reinvent herself as a blond bombshell in the mid 1960s with Harlow and The Carpetbaggers. (At this writing, Ms. Baker is one of two surviving members of the principal cast.) Dennis Hopper, best friend of James Dean and his recent costar in Rebel, displays his own brand of vulnerability and sensitivity as young Jordie Benedict.


Sal Mineo as Angel Obregon

The imposing Mercedes McCambridge, who had won an Oscar for All The King’s Men and tussled with Joan Crawford in the western Johnny Guitar, also earned an Oscar nod as tough-as-nails Benedict sister Luz, who rules the roost and wears the pants—indeed, James Dean’s character refers to her as “Madama.”  

Child star Jane Withers (still with us and age 94 as of this writing) is the garrulous girl Hudson left behind to marry Taylor, while a young Rod Taylor (The Birds) plays Elizabeth Taylor’s spurned fiance. There’s also a tiny but memorable cameo role by sad-eyed Sal Mineo, who had such great chemistry with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, as Mexican ranch hand turned tragic soldier Angel Obregon. Chill Wills, one of the great character actors, ubiquitous in classic westerns, lends strong support as understanding Uncle Bawley, who runs interference between the often-feuding Benedicts. 


The Benedicts age 25 years through the course of the film

Rock Hudson and James Dean were not friendly, though they both adored Elizabeth Taylor, but rumors of a feud between the two are probably apocryphal. The two trade punches in a key scene, and there are extant photos of the pair sparring on the porch, probably rehearsing for that famous confrontation between a buttoned-up, linen-clad Hudson and a crude-oil-drenched Dean.

Despite the rumors about Dean’s fluid sexuality, the two male stars had little else in common. Where Rock Hudson learned his lines and his hit his marks with old-school professionalism, Dean the anti-establishment Method actor prepared in unusual ways, including racing around the set to keep his adrenalin pumping and his emotions high, and mumbling his dialogue using a newly acquired, authentic Texas drawl.




If James Dean is electrifying as the young hellcat Jett Rink of the first half, Rock Hudson provides the story’s most gripping moments in the second half. Hudson truly excels in his portrayal of the mature Bick Benedict, patriarch of the fading Benedict dynasty, a cantankerous member of the older generation flummoxed by a changing world.

Possibly the most intense scene of the picture takes place near the end in Sarge’s hamburger joint, where Bick gallantly defends the honor of his Mexican daughter-in-law and grandchild, who had been previously embarrassments to him). It’s one of Hudson’s finest moments in his 30-year career as an actor. 


Was there a real-life rivalry between Rock and Jimmy?

After his sudden death in a car crash at the age of 24 with only three films under his belt, James Dean became one of those iconic show business ghosts who continue to haunt us decades later, permanently frozen in time. Along with Marilyn, Elvis, Judy and Heath, his legend lives on.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor remained lifelong friends after Giant, later reuniting on the screen in the campy Agatha Christie mystery The Mirror Crack’d in 1980. When Hudson fell ill and died from AIDS in 1986, the traumatic event was a turning point for Elizabeth, who was instrumental in establishing the AmFar Foundation to create visibility and accelerate the search for a cure or treatment for the dreaded disease.


Rock and Liz on the set in Marfa with director George Stevens, and clowning with Jimmy

If you have a long, lazy Sunday afternoon free one of these days, I highly recommend this beautifully crafted portrait of a loving, brawling, dysfunctional Texas family. You’ll learn a lot of history along with being satisfyingly entertained, as well as the reason why they say “Don’t mess with Texas!”  



Thanks so much to Quiggy at the Midnite Drive-In for hosting this Texas movie blogathon celebration! It promises to be one of the biggest blogathon events ever, and I look forward to reading all the entries.