Friday, July 22, 2016

Lethal Weapon

Thanks to the success of 48 Hrs. (1982), the Buddy Action Movie became arguably the most popular genre in the 1980s and it seemed, for a short time, that studios were handing them out to any dramatic actor-comedian combo that wanted one. This resulted in the best of times (Beverly Hills Cop) and the worst of times (City Heat). By the late ‘80s, the formula had gotten stale and in need of an injection of new blood. Along came aspiring screenwriter Shane Black who had written an urban western inspired by Dirty Harry (1971). With Lethal Weapon (1987), he took the Buddy Action Movie to darker places than it had been before by teaming up a veteran cop in the twilight of his career with his new partner, an unhinged, suicidal loose cannon. Needless to say, the end result was explosive and the movie was a massive commercial success, spawning three increasingly inferior sequels and a television show.

Veteran Los Angeles police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned a case involving a coked-up, pill-popping prostitute that took a swan dive off her high-rise apartment building. He becomes personally involved when the dead girl’s father (Tom Atkins) turns out to be an old Vietnam War buddy who tells him that she was murdered and desperately implores his friend to find those responsible and kill them. If that wasn’t hard enough news to take, he’s also been assigned a new partner – Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) – who may or may not have a crazy death wish.

They soon run afoul of retired General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) who is running a heroin-smuggling operation and employs a team of mercenaries including his fiercesome right-hand man Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), an impeccably dressed individual that pulls a G. Gordon Liddy with an underling’s lighter to show what a badass he is. It’s a nice scene that shows what a serious threat these guys are to our heroes. I like how the film gradually reveals the kind of threat Murtaugh and Riggs are up against and they are people that use deadly force, which tempers the comedy that is sprinkled liberally throughout. Black’s script gets the mix just right – something that subsequent Black-less sequels did not with their increasingly lazy sitcom elements typified by the addition of Joe Pesci’s annoying mugging.

Director Richard Donner immediately shows the contrasting lifestyles of Murtaugh and Riggs with the former a loving family man that lives in the suburbs while the latter starts the day with a cigarette and beer in a trailer with his dog by the beach. Not surprisingly, they also have contrasting approaches to police work and this is memorably illustrated when we see Riggs at work, going undercover to bust a trio of drug dealers at a Christmas tree lot and proceeds to throw them off guard by going all Three Stooges on them in a moment that is hilarious but quickly turns deadly on a dime when one of them pulls a gun. After dispatching a few of them, one of the crooks grabs Riggs and puts a gun to his head. Instead of freaking out or begging for his life, he repeatedly taunts the guy to shoot him, which unnerves the crook so much that Riggs is able to disarm him.

The scene where Murtaugh and Riggs first meet is a memorable one as the former spots the latter taking out his gun, assumes he’s a criminal and charges him only to be taken down very quickly by his new partner. This starts the beginning of a contentious partnership as Riggs tells Murtaugh early on, “Let’s just cut the shit. We both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal in which I’m fucked ‘cos nobody wants to work with me. Or, they think I’m faking it, draw a psycho pension in which case I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.” Not surprisingly, Murtaugh isn’t thrilled to be working with Riggs either and tells him, “God hates me, that’s what it is,” to which his partner replies, “Hate him back. Works for me.”

I like that the film takes the time to establish the volatile relationship between these two men, showing their contrasting styles of police work as evident in a scene where they deal with a guy threatening to jump off a building. Riggs’ solution is certainly a novel if not completely batshit crazy one. This leads to an excellent scene where they have it out and Riggs tells Murtaugh about his suicidal tendencies, which features intense acting from both men. It gives Lethal Weapon an edge as Murtaugh (and us) don’t know what Riggs is going to do next even as the movie goes through the usual Buddy Action Movie beats.

Chemistry is everything with this genre and Gibson and Glover certainly have it and not just in the action scenes but the crucial downtime in-between, like when Murtaugh takes Riggs home to meet his family and afterwards they hash out the case up to that point, which shows them gelling as a team. It is a nice moment between these guys as we get to know them and care about what happens to them. Black’s script tempers this quiet, bonding moment with Riggs’ parting shot before he heads home: “When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could’ve made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.” Gibson delivers this dialogue with just enough matter-of-fact edginess as to give off a chilling vibe.

Riggs is haunted by the death of his wife and in a powerful scene puts a loaded gun in his mouth. The utter sadness and despair Gibson conveys in this scene is powerful and gives his character an added dimension beyond being simply a wild and crazy cop. It also gives us insight into what motivates him. Murtaugh is a police detective celebrating his 50th birthday when we first meet him and is really starting to feel his age thanks to his oldest daughter who has started dating boys, much to his chagrin. Glover does a nice job of juggling his role as beleaguered family man and someone who is becoming increasingly exasperated by the dangerous antics of his new partner.

Lethal Weapon would establish Black’s tried and true motifs that he’s used in most of his movies: a mystery is kickstarted by the death of a prostitute or stripper, which establishes a favorite recurring thematic pre-occupation of innocence lost. In order to solve the murder, an older, burnt-out character partners with a younger, zanier one going up against a villain who is an older, richer white character that employs an impeccably dressed, unfailingly polite sadistic henchman with the story usually taking place during Christmas in Los Angeles.

Ever the consummate professional, Donner’s crisp direction keeps things chugging along with a slick, glossy look that was synonymous with most ‘80s action movies. The action sequences are coherent, we always know where everyone is and they aren’t edited within an inch of their lives. Best of all, he makes sure to spend enough time letting us get to know Murtaugh and Riggs, showing how their partnership develops over time as they learn to trust each other by surviving death-defying situations. The film also isn’t afraid to forego logic and indulge in its Alpha Male reptilian brain at the climax when, despite being surrounded by cops, Riggs decides to have it out with Mr. Joshua for a knock-down, drag-out fight where the cop is finally allowed to let his inner caveman out. And everyone lets these guys do it! It makes no common sense but the film has been building up to this point and we want to see these two guys go at it to see who is the bigger badass.


The commercial success of Lethal Weapon propelled the young Shane Black into the stratosphere and for a short while he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Donner, Gibson and Glover did pretty well for themselves, reteaming for three more sequels – the second of which (1989) was the only one that was any good. None of them have been able to touch the lightning in a bottle that Donner, et al were able to catch with the first movie and for a brief moment it seemed like the Buddy Action Movie was going to be given a new lease on life. After all, Midnight Run came out the next year and was also a breath of fresh air but sadly these two movies were the exception and not the rule for some time to come.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Canadian author Mordecai Richler let his best friend and roommate Ted Kotcheff read the manuscript of his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1958. At the time, they were sharing a flat in London, England and the latter proclaimed it to be “the best Canadian novel ever written.” Others felt the same way, too. It was published in 1959 and went on to become one of the most highly regarded examples of Canadian literature. Described as Canada’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye, it chronicles the misadventures of a scrappy young Jewish kid from the streets of Montreal.

Ever since he first read Richler’s manuscript, Kotcheff had wanted to adapt it into a film and finally got the chance in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. The actor famously was so disappointed with his own performance that he feared it could potentially end his promising movie career. He had turned down a pivotal role in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and begged to be cast in the film before any negative buzz from Duddy Kravitz could reach the powers that be. The rest is history and Kotcheff’s film not only became the most commercially successful Canadian film at that time, but also features what might arguably be Dreyfuss’ best performance.

The film immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of 1950s Montreal by showing how the whole neighborhood comes out to see the cadet marching band making its way through the streets. We see kids playing on the street, men talking on the street corner and old women buying produce at the fruit market. Duddy Kravitz (Dreyfuss) slips away from the parade to a local deli where his taxi cab driver father Max (Jack Warden) is holding court, telling an engrossing story. The veteran character actor commands the screen with his animated style of storytelling that harkens back to a time when guys like him would tell colorful tales in bars and delis.

Duddy hangs out with his grandfather (Zvee Scooler) who imparts pearls of wisdom like, “A man without land is nobody.” He’s one of the few adults Duddy respects and the words really make a big impact on the young man. He gets a summer job as a waiter at a Jewish resort hotel in the Laurentian Mountains – a world away from the streets of Montreal – where he uses his hustling skills to make money on the side. He soon finds that there’s a definite pecking order with the waiters, all of whom study at McGill University and look down at the working class kid. This includes the cook who gives the other waiters their orders first. However, Duddy is a fast learner and works harder and earns more money than the others by knowing which wheels to grease.

Duddy is full of quick rich schemes, from filming bar mitzvahs to selling pinball machines. He’s got street smarts, which rubs his uncle Benjy (Joseph Wiseman) the wrong way and lets his nephew know it: “You’re a born pusher, a little Jew boy on the make and guys like you make me feel sick and ashamed.” This provokes Duddy to say, “Oh, you lousy, intelligent people! You liars! Your books and your socialism and your sneers, you can be one more pain in the ass, you know that?” It’s the summer resort all over again with the educated university students laughing at Duddy. He feels the same sense of superiority from his uncle. It is a wonderfully delivered speech from Dreyfuss as the scene underlines one of the film’s central themes – street smarts vs. intellectualism.

Richard Dreyfuss’ Duddy is a whirlwind of energy and the actor instills the character with a vitality that is exciting to watch. It’s hard not to get caught up in his dreams of making money even if they turn out to be schemes more than anything else. The actor conveys a confidence and bravado that often comes from being young with nothing to lose and this ideally suited a character like Duddy. Dreyfuss isn’t afraid to show the lows that come with the euphoric highs, like how Duddy vomits after losing all his money in a roulette game.

Duddy Kravitz makes a point of showing the distinction between classes, most significantly Duddy’s working class neighborhood vs. the rich, snobby university students that work at the resort. He resents this and, as a result, always has something to prove. Father figures also play a prominent role in the film as Duddy’s dad hardly gives his son the time of day and so the young man looks to people like his grandfather or an alcoholic blacklisted film director (a hilariously bitter Denholm Elliott) for approval and wisdom, which makes him something of a tragic figure as the impetus for what he does comes out of trying to impress his father.

Ted Kotcheff was born and raised in Toronto and wanted to be a film director but ended up working for the CBC in the mid-1950s directing live television dramas. There was no film industry in Canada at the time and so he moved to London, England to learn about making movies. It was there that he met, became friends with and roomed with writer Mordecai Richler in 1958. At the time, the author was writing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and when he was finished, let Kotcheff read it. The director told Richler, “This is the best Canadian novel ever written. Someday I am going to go back to Canada and film it.”

For years, Kotcheff tried to get Duddy Kravitz made but potential producers feared that the subject matter might be misconstrued as being anti-Semitic, much like the accusations leveled at Richler when his novel was published. One American producer – Samuel Z. Arkoff – wanted to change Duddy Kravitz to a Greek character. Finally, the Canadian Film Development Corp., which was government financed, agreed to help back it and National Film Board of Canada veteran John Kemeny agreed to produce it. However, the existing screenplay needed work and Richler came in to rewrite it in six weeks. Kotcheff was able to make the film on a thrifty $900,000 budget.

The filmmaker had no problem finding the supporting cast but found choosing the right actor to play the titular character a challenge because he would have to make the audience care for a guy that does awful things over the course of the film. Time was running out when a friend of Kotcheff’s, casting agent Lynn Stalmaster, recommended a young actor by the name of Richard Dreyfuss, fresh from appear in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Kotcheff remembered, “As soon as he opened his mouth it was electrifying. Richard had everything: the core of Duddy’s drive and obsession.” The actor recalled, “As soon as I read the script, I realized I was holding in my hands the greatest part ever offered to a young actor.” Dreyfuss had never heard of the book and “got on a train, read the book and spent the rest of the time on the train writing ‘Add this, add this, add this’ because the novel was so rich.”

At the time, Dreyfuss had repeated turned down a role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Jaws but had a change of heart when he saw himself in Duddy Kravitz. He thought that his performance was so bad that he would never work in film again. “I thought it was a wonderful movie but I didn’t like my performance because I had no experience in watching me for that amount of time. I saw all the things I didn’t do. I didn’t see it as story-telling.” He begged Spielberg to cast him in Jaws.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was a box office hit in both Canada and the United States. It was also named Canada’s Best Film of 1974, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award for its script. Pauline Kael said of Dreyfuss’ performance: “No matter how phenomenal Richard Dreyfuss is in other roles, it’s not likely that he’ll ever top his performance in this teeming, energetic Canadian film.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It’s a little too sloppy, and occasionally too obvious, to qualify as a great film, but it’s a good and entertaining one, and it leaves us thinking that Duddy Kravitz might amount to something after all, should he ever grow up.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby found it an “alternately sad and hilarious movie of dreams rampant.”

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is about a selfish opportunist, a young man desperate to make money and realize his dreams any way he can and along the way he ends up hurting those close to him, either emotionally or, indirectly, physically. Dreyfuss delivers a fearless performance in a breakout role. In the end, Duddy achieves his goal but at a terrible cost and it seems like a hollow victory at best. The film is a coming-of-age tale with Duddy learning some harsh lessons about life.


SOURCES

Howell, Peter. “Ted Kotcheff Finally Brings The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to Cannes.” Toronto Star. May 22, 2013.

Johnson, Brian D. “Richard Dreyfuss Owes Jaws to Duddy Kravitz.” Macleans. May 22, 2013.

Knelman, Martin. “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Gets New Life.” Toronto Star. February 16, 2013.


Lacey, Liam. “Dreyfuss on Duddy: ‘Roles like that don’t come along very often.’” The Globe and Mail. May 22, 2013.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Modern Romance

“You have to be fearless about it, you can’t go, Oh gee, am I gonna come off too this or too that? Don’t make the movie then, don’t do that subject if that’s what you’re afraid of, play a lovable teddy bear.” – Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks has always been a fearless performer unafraid to play characters that are unattractive (Taxi Driver) or arrogant (Broadcast News). In the films he wrote and directed, Brooks helped pioneer the uncomfortable comedy, which featured characters stumbling into awkward situations and off-kilter comic pacing that often involved stretches with no jokes that cleverly built-up to a punchline or joke that wasn’t always blatantly telegraphed. One can see this influence in the comedy of Garry Shandling, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. among others.

One of Brooks’ best films is Modern Romance (1981), a funny, wryly observed comedy about love featuring the comedian as a neurotic guy repeatedly breaking up and getting back together with his girlfriend played by Kathryn Harrold. The film famously did not test well with audiences back in the day and when he refused to make any changes the powers that be released it with little fanfare only for it to promptly die on the vine. He subsequently sunk into a deep funk only to be rescued by none other than Stanley Kubrick who told him how much he admired the film.

The first scene – where Robert Cole (Brooks) breaks up with girlfriend Mary Harvard (Harrold) – establishes the film’s off-kilter vibe as they order food and she endearingly wipes her lipstick off his cheek before he lowers the boom. She tries to prolong it by chitchatting about his work – he’s a film editor – until he forces the issue, calling their relationship, “a no-win situation,” like Vietnam. This isn’t the first time they’ve broken up and Robert comes off as a little paranoid and majorly neurotic. Brooks deftly juggles tones in this scene, inserting sly, little jokes amidst the heaviness of the moment, like when an understandably upset Mary gets up and leaves only for Robert to say, “Come back, we can at least eat!”

Robert goes to work and confides in his best friend and co-worker Jay (Bruno Kirby), giving himself a half-hearted pep talk: “There’s ten million people in this city alone. How difficult can it be to find one perfect woman? It’s not that big a deal,” to which his friend deadpans, “I haven’t but maybe you can.” They try to build each other up in an amusing moment but it feels like they are going through the motions.

Upset, Robert goes home and proceeds to call Jay on the phone. Brooks captures their entire conversation in one long, uninterrupted take as we see how the breakup with Mary has started to impact on him. He then calls Jay back after the two Quaaludes kick in and wanders through his house rambling on and stumbling around in a funny scene. Again, Brooks lets the scene play out as we follow Robert around his place, talking to himself after hanging up with Jay. Most other filmmakers would have cut away or used to music to manipulate our emotions but not Brooks who only uses music when it feels right – in this case, when Robert decides to put on a record, saying, “God, I have so many great albums. I love my albums,” and this other amusing gem, “Music is the doctor of the soul.” However, the song he puts on makes him sad and he takes the record off. This awkwardness feels intimate, like we shouldn’t be seeing this and it only adds to the authenticity of the moment. Here’s a guy who feels lost in life. He’s broken up with the woman he loves and now deeply regrets it.

Robert convinces himself that he’s starting a new life and so he loads up on vitamins, buys a new running outfit (from a salesman played hilariously by Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein), and then proceeds to clumsily try running with predictably poor results. He tries to get over Mary through sheer force of will and it is funny seeing him try. The rest of Modern Romance plays out his attempts to get over Mary and then his attempts to win her back.

The lovely Kathryn Harrold is ideally cast as Brooks’ love interest and one can see why Robert is crazy about Mary – she’s smart, beautiful and good at her job, which makes us wonder why they broke up in the first place? Early on, it isn’t clear why they keep breaking up and getting back together but by the last third of the film it becomes obvious – they don’t communicate very well. He doesn’t trust her and is insanely jealous, letting things build up until they become an issue.

Bruno Kirby is well-cast as Brooks’ best friend and they play well off each other, especially early on when, after just having broken up with Mary, Robert confides in Jay. Later on, he pops up in a strong sequence that shows how the two men solve a post-production issue that the director tells them to resolve. I like that it’s a comedy where we actually see the characters working at their jobs. Brooks goes one step further and actually provides some detail on what a film editor does, which gives us an insider’s look that feels true.

The inspiration for Modern Romance came out of a personal experience Albert Brooks had:

“Two year ago, I was going out with a woman. The relationship had ended but I found myself driving around her house, over and over again. I felt pinned to my car. I couldn’t do anything else but keep circling the house and I couldn’t even figure out why I was doing it. Finally, I thought, why don’t I pull over and write this down? It might make a good film.”

Brooks actually incorporated that very anecdote into the finished film. He chose Robert to be a film editor because he had never seen a movie about Hollywood that featured one as the protagonist. Furthermore, he said, “I would not have made Modern Romance unless I had that kind of trouble in my life with breaking up. I didn’t do it as much as that character, but I did it enough to be able to write and do that, so for comedic purposes, I take behavior that I might do and I square it.”

Initially, Columbia Pictures was so happy with Modern Romance that then-studio head Frank Price flew Brooks and his co-star Kathryn Harrold from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the executive’s private jet for a test screening. It went so badly that Price ditched Brooks and flew back to L.A. Later, the two men met and addressed the problems the audience had with the film. People couldn’t understand why Robert was so unhappy and Price wanted Brooks to add a scene where he goes to a psychiatrist. Brooks refused because he didn’t know why the character was so unhappy as well. His then-agent Michael Ovitz urged him to add the scene in order to appease the studio. Brooks refused and changed agents. The studio released the film with little support and it performed poorly at the box office, polarizing critics and leaving Brooks depressed.

Then, out of the blue, Stanley Kubrick called Brooks and told him, “This is a brilliant movie – the movie I’ve always wanted to make about jealousy. You will not understand what I’m saying, but you must believe me: The studio decides before the movie is ever released how it’s going to do. It has nothing to do with you.” Kubrick’s call revitalized Brooks’ self-esteem. Over time, Brooks began to realize that his film resonated with people as he recounted in a profile for The New York Times, “A guy came running up to me on the street the other day and he says, ‘You’re the guy! You’re the guy! I got married because of that movie!’ I said: ‘Great. That’s a terrible reason to get married.’”

Modern Romance carries on the proud tradition of single guy romantic comedies like Annie Hall (1977), The Lonely Guy (1984), and High Fidelity (2000) by putting his own distinctive stamp on the genre. He doesn’t go for broad gags, opting for a more understated approach, setting up a situation and letting it play out organically unlike most comedies that go for an easy punchline.

“There are no gags in the picture. No zany comics. There are real people in real situations carried to a logical – or illogical – extreme. If the outcome is funny, it’s because life itself is funny.” – Albert Brooks

Brooks understands that a lot of comedy comes out of anger and pain and isn’t afraid to mine this territory for honest observations about love. He also understands that most of us don’t have an easy time when it comes to love and relationships take work. He also acknowledges the awkwardness of life and isn’t afraid to play someone riddled with self-doubt, which makes his character relatable. One has to admire Brooks for not being content to merely make a film that is nothing more than a joke delivery machine but actually try to say something about love and how people relate to each other.


SOURCES

Barron, Angela. “Post Modern Romance.” Editors Guild Magazine. September-October 2005.

Modern Romance Production Notes. Columbia Pictures. 1981.

Raab, Scott. “Albert Brooks Knows the Whole Hellish Truth.” Esquire. January 29, 2007.

Smith, Gavin. “All the Choices: Albert Brooks Interview.” Film Comment. July/August 1999.

Svetkey, Benjamin. “Albert Brooks Takes a Look Back on his Career.” Entertainment Weekly. May 30, 2003.


Weber, Bruce. “Reflections on Himself.” The New York Times. March 17, 1991.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Giant

“It is a saga of America…Though the film chronicles the rise of a great Texas cattle and oil dynasty and its relationship to the rest of the community, it could be the story of any section of the United States, confronted with parallel problems. It is Americana.” – George Stevens

Years ago, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama There Will Be Blood (2007) was released, I came across a review that compared it to George Stevens’ Western epic Giant (1956) and went on to say that the former was a prequel of sorts to the latter. This comparison intrigued and stayed with me for years, making me think of Stevens’ film in a new light. Like Anderson’s film, Giant chronicles the emergence of big oil in the United States only on a much larger scale. It depicts the trials and tribulations of a Texas family from the 1920s until after World War II.

Adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name, it was directed by Stevens who had made the masterful Western Shane (1953), and starred three young actors in their twenties: Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor – both of whom had already made several films – and James Dean, who was appearing in only his third film but already had an Academy Award nomination and would receive another one for his performance in Giant. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed. The film went on to become a big commercial and critical hit and is rightly viewed as a cinematic masterpiece even though it isn’t talked about as much anymore.

We first meet Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Hudson) en route to Ardmore, Maryland where he intends to buy a horse he plans to put out to stud. He’s the head of a wealthy Texas ranching family and ends up falling in love with the horse owner’s beautiful daughter Leslie Lynton (Taylor). Bick is a confident man that becomes strangely uncomfortable when talking about the size of his ranch but once he meets Leslie, he can’t stop thinking about her and is unable to get to sleep. She is also a confident person in her own right and is smitten with Bick, reading a book about Texas after meeting him. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have a fantastic chemistry together, which makes Bick and Leslie’s whirlwind romance believable.

Leslie is not afraid to speak her mind by first telling Bick how the U.S. stole Texas from Mexico and then asking if he’s married. This angers Bick and we get an amusing shot of him glaring at Leslie while she playfully chews on a piece of bacon, pretending to ignore him. After exchanging longing glances between each other while looking at the horse he just bought, it is obvious that they are madly in love.

They are soon married and she goes back with him to Texas. They arrive on his land and Stevens does a wonderful job capturing the epic grandeur of Texas as he shows Bick and Leslie driving home through an expansive, desolate landscape in a long shot that makes their car look so small in comparison to the spread of barren land. We also get the first real indication of the rampant racism inherent in the state when Bick casually criticizes a Mexican man at the train station. A few minutes later, Bick refers to his Mexican maids as “those people” and chastises Leslie for simply asking them their names and being nice. Elizabeth Taylor radiates warmth and decency as Leslie doesn’t quite understand Bick and his older sister Luz’s (Mercedes McCambridge) attitude towards Mexicans.

Stevens gives James Dean’s Jett Rink a wordless introduction, letting the actor express himself through his laconic posture. Not surprisingly, Dean makes an instant impact when Jett meets Bick and Leslie, getting into an argument with the former and then shyly extending his hand to the latter before awkwardly withdrawing it and leaving.

Stevens uses the Benedict picnic to give us a slice-of-life look at Texan culture with an emphasis on its cuisine and the weather, which Leslie hasn’t adapted to yet but she’s a quick learner and acclimatizes herself to their way of life much to the chagrin of Luz who feels threatened by the new young bride. Stevens also gives us a window into how a cattle ranch is run, including the branding of calves and some of the environmental dangers, like rattlesnakes.

Realizing that Leslie doesn’t share the same views about Mexicans that Bick does, Jett takes her to the impoverished slums where they live and Stevens shows rundown shacks and hovels populated with sick children and a decent-sized graveyard located in the middle that is a real eye-opener for her (and us). This scene must’ve come as quite a revelation for American audiences in 1956 as racism wasn’t depicted so openly in mainstream Hollywood movies.

The earliest indication we get of the coming oil boom is at Luz’s funeral when a neighboring family tells Leslie how they struck it rich thanks to finding oil on their land. In her will, Luz leaves a small amount of land to Jett. He epitomizes the self-made man by starting off with almost nothing and becoming very wealthy when he discovers oil on his land in a scene that is paid homage to in There Will Be Blood. Like Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s film, Jett starts off with one oil well and builds a vast empire, becoming a ruthlessly rich man, much to Bick’s annoyance who harbors bitter resentment over failing to acquire such oil-rich land while he stubbornly continues on with his cattle ranch. Stevens shows how this wealth corrupts Jett, bringing out his worst tendencies, causing one of Bick’s friends to say, “Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill.”

The years pass and Bick and Leslie have children and watch them grow up while they get older and become domesticated homebodies, sleeping in separate beds – a shadow of their younger, vibrant selves. Jett continually attempts to buy Bick’s ranch in order to expand his oil empire and to stick it to the man he used to work for when they were younger. The aging makeup on Dean, Hudson and Taylor isn’t all that realistic-looking but does just enough to not be distracting either. The actors compensate by the way in which they carry themselves and act, even altering the way they talk in subtle ways.

“You are an odd one, aren’t you, Jett?” Leslie says to him at one point and it could sum up his character and Dean’s Method performance, which is in sharp contrast to the classically trained Hudson and Taylor. It is all the little, eccentric flourishes that Dean makes, like the way he tilts his cowboy hat forward on his head or his disjointed way of speaking that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. One feels that he’s working off instinct and living in the moment and it sets him apart, much like Jett from the rest of the characters.

Rock Hudson isn’t afraid to play a man who is a product of his environment and with that comes a racist attitude towards Mexicans. Bick is also a questionable father, forcing his little boy to ride a pony when the child is clearly terrified of doing so. He gets his child-rearing skills from his strict father and is obviously more skilled at ranching. Bick ends up a bitter old man while Jett is a pathetic old drunk. However, the former learns to be more tolerant of Mexicans, even getting into a fight with the owner of a diner who insults his Mexican daughter-in-law and refuses to serve a Mexican family that comes in. Even though Bick loses the brawl, his willingness to fight for the rights of other shows how far he’s come since the beginning of the film.

Elizabeth Taylor plays a character full of life and the actress absolutely radiates unbridled energy that is infectious. She delivers a charismatic performance that is riveting to watch. Leslie is a progressive character that addresses the sexist attitudes of the times in which she lives, in particular Texas, in a tense scene in which she insists on listening in on Bick and his friends talk politics, much to his chagrin as she makes him look bad in front of them. He believes that women should know their place and it’s implied that it is at home cooking and raising children, which doesn’t sit too well with her. If she is supposed to know her place at home then she finds other ways to make a difference, like bringing in a doctor to improve the health conditions in the Mexican village.

Two of Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) co-stars – Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo – make memorable appearances with the former as Bick’s rebellious grown-up son and who has a fantastic scene with Hudson late in the film where the two men have it out, and the latter delivering a wordless performance as a wide-eyed local boy that goes off to meet his tragic fate in World War II.

Edna Ferber’s Giant was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal before Doubleday published it in the fall of 1952. It depicted the turbulent lives of three generations of a Texas family and proved to be very popular if not somewhat controversial with its depiction of racial tensions and an interracial marriage. Naturally, Hollywood came calling. After all, they had already adapted ten of her books.

Initially, Ferber kept the studios at arm’s length and this tactic backfired when they began to lose interest. Not filmmaker George Stevens who was intrigued by the controversy around the novel and felt it was ripe for a cinematic treatment. He was also drawn to its love story: “So many of our romantic pictures just lead up to the altar and leave you with a general assumption of inevitable happiness. But this is a story about the hazards of the marriage relationship.”

Stevens teamed up with producer Henry Ginsberg who made an offer to Ferber for the movie rights to Giant in December 1952. Ginsberg decided to form a production company with Stevens and Ferber to produce and distribute adaptations of the latter’s works starting with Giant. The next challenge was to find a studio to bankroll it. Shane had not yet been released and Stevens was considered something of a commercial risk. That is, until Shane was released and became a critical and commercial hit. Warner Bros. agreed to back it, advertise and also distribute it in December 1953. The budget was set at $1.5 million.

When it came to the screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, Ferber was quite critical of it, giving Stevens notes about various drafts that were largely ignored. She wrote to Stevens, “I want to only say this: I know nothing about the making of motion pictures. I know about writing. I know about dialogue, characterization, situation…As a writer, I find some of the Giant speeches wooden, unvital, and uncharacteristic.” She offered to write a draft and flew to Los Angeles on June 20, 1954, working a six-day-a-week schedule with Stevens, Guiol and Moffat. She finished her draft on August 8 and Stevens ended up using the script that he, Guiol and Moffat wrote instead.

When it came to casting, Stevens initially toyed with Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Even though he didn’t resemble Bick, Rock Hudson wanted badly to play the role. Stevens’ secretary told her boss to screen a small Western that Hudson had made that required him to age. Stevens did so and was impressed, casting Hudson without even meeting him! However, the actor was under contract with Universal Studios who refused to lend him out. Hudson fought the studio and won out.

Stevens felt that Elizabeth Taylor was too young for the part of Leslie and approached Hepburn who turned him down. Stevens briefly considered the likes of Grace Kelly, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth and many others. He really wanted Kelly but MGM refused to loan her out. Once she heard that Kelly wasn’t available, Taylor begged MGM to loan her out and pursued the role, eventually winning Stevens over. Over the course of the film, the actress would befriend Hudson and Dean, staying close to the former for the rest of his life.

For Jett Rink, Stevens wanted Robert Mitchum but he had a conflict with another project. He considered Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger and Montgomery Clift among others. Dean was friends with Guiol and got into the habit of hanging around Stevens’ office. The director felt that the actor didn’t physically resemble the character but was swayed by Dean’s skill as an actor.

Principal photography began on May 19, 1955 on a 77-day schedule in Charlottesville, Virginia where the scenes that involved Bick and Leslie meeting and falling in love were filmed. From there, the production moved to Marfa, Texas with a crew of 250 people descending on the small town. To drum up word of mouth about the film, Stevens allowed the public to watch filming with an average of 300 onlookers during the week and 700-1,000 on weekends.

It soon became evident that the estimated $1.5 million budget would not be enough, nor would the proposed schedule. The budget was increased to $2.5 million with 35 days added (the eventual budget was $5.4 million). Due to the nature and scale of the film as well as Stevens’ habit of shooting too much footage, by the end of June the production was eight days behind schedule and $200,000 over budget. Where did the money go? In ambitious shots like a massive herd of Longhorn cattle. Stevens’ scouts managed to find the nearly extinct breed and shipped them all to Marfa at a considerable cost. The façade of the Benedict house was built in Hollywood and shipped to Marfa on flatcars. It was erected in the corner of the Worth Evans ranch.

To make matters worse, Taylor was frequently ill and studio executives became so worried about these delays that they considered taking the film away from Stevens. Dean and Stevens had a turbulent relationship with the actor refusing to hit the marks that the director wanted him to and defiant acts like showing up late for filming or sometimes not at all. This tested Stevens’ patience but fortunately Dean was doing brilliant work in the role. After Marfa, all the interior scenes were shot on soundstages at the Warner studio back in Hollywood with filming ending on September 30, 1955. The most unfortunate incident that plagued the production was when Dean was killed in a car accident before the film was released. All of his scenes had been filmed but one was inaudible and needed to be looped in post-production. His former roommate and best friend Nick Adams was hired to loop Dean’s dialogue.

We watch Bick, Leslie and Jett grow up and it’s fascinating to see how they’ve changed towards the end of the film from how they were when we first met them. One gets the feeling that their lives hadn’t quite turned out as they imagined they would. Sure, they have vast wealth and large families but are they truly happy?

Giant is an epic saga about the dark side of the American dream and how one man (Jett) comes to embody it and another man (Bick) is embittered by it. Stevens’ film spans decades as it chronicles the lives of three people through good and bad times, through the birth of children and the death of a dear friend. The film is both intimate and epic in the sense that it depicts their personal lives on a large scale with the sweep of American history as the backdrop. It is as much a story about America as it is about these people as they are part of the country’s very fabric.


SOURCES

Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle, a Biography. Applause Books. 2000.

Hyam, Joe with Jay Hyam. James Dean: Little Boy Lost. Warner Books. 1992.

Kelley, Kitty. Elizabeth Taylor, the Last Star. Simon & Schuster. 1981.

Moss, Marilyn Ann. Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film. University of Wisconsin Press. 2015.


Rosenfield, John. “Texas-Sized Giant.” Southwest Review. Autumn 1956.