Giant is the last and least of James Dean’s three movies, an outrageously lengthy, earnest, arbitrary Texas soap opera familiar to many viewers in its even longer two-part showings on afternoon TV with commercials. “Big” though it is, it belongs on the small screen. Sitting through it is like cramming a decade’s worth of daily television-watching into a single sitting. For an eternity, we see a luscious young Elizabeth Taylor suffer harsh Texan landscapes, an oafish husband (Rock Hudson), incredible boredom, and eventually the horrors of what must be the worst old-age make-up in film history (Taylor and Hudson get blue hair and have lines that literally look as if they were penciled on). After almost three and a half hours, big rancher Hudson learns to give up racial prejudice when he stands up for his Mexican daughter-in-law in a racist greasy spoon, perhaps the smallest big finish of any movie epic. It’s just an Edna Ferber through-the-years chronicle but Stevens, lusting palpably for significance, loads Giant down with the weighty issue of racism and just leaves it there for us to admire.
Dean is not in all that much of Giant (Stevens disliked him and thwarted his attempts at improvisation). As Jett Rink, an outsider who strikes oil, Dean, usually shot in shadow in cowboy hat and tight blue jeans, has only two good scenes. In the first, he tries to make Taylor feel at home by making her tea in his little house; like Jean Arthur in Stevens’s Shane, Dean’s Jett is carrying a torch for someone he can’t make a play for. Dean is quite touching in this scene, and he’s full of coarse animal vitality when he comes to Hudson’s ranch, oil-slicked, to announce his good fortune. Otherwise, the only thing worth remembering for Dean fans is the way he dances weirdly across the prairie every now and again. For a reason I cannot fathom, Giant still has a reputation as a fine film, and it will no doubt go on boring audiences forever and a day, and then another day after that.