The radical is so often imagined as the marginal that sometimes the truly subversive escapes detection just by showing up in a tuxedo instead of a T-shirt or a ski mask. Take Giant, the 1956 film directed by George Stevens. It stars Elizabeth Taylor and features three queer men, Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Sal Mineo, who uneasily orbit one another in ways that seem only partly about their cinematic roles.
This is what caught my eye the first time I saw Giant. It was the thirtieth-anniversary screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, the great 1,400-seat dream palace where, from my mid-teens on, I learned from the sighs and groans and snickers of the gay men around me in the dark to notice homoerotic subtext, to delight in women with verve, and to appreciate camp and bitchiness and cliché.
In the film, Elizabeth Taylor plays that rarest of joys, a woman who breaks the rules, triumphs, and enjoys herself rather than winding up dead or deserted or defeated, as too many female rebels have in too many movies. The year before my first viewing, Hudson had died of AIDS, and Taylor had begun advocating and fund-raising for those with the then-untreatable and horrifically stigmatized disease. Her outspoken heroics in real life made her a little like the unconquered heroine she was in the movie.
Whenever I see a woman like that onscreen, I get revved up in a way that men who identify with Hollywood’s endless stream of action heroes must be all the time. Just watching Jennifer Lawrence walk down a Texas street like a classic gunslinger in the 2015 biopic Joy gave me a thrill I get maybe once a year. Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen was the hard drugs. Beyoncé’s recent videos have offered some of the same satisfaction, of a woman who slays and doesn’t stay down. Distaff invictus, lady with agency.
The second time I saw the film on the Castro’s huge screen, for its fortieth anniversary, I brought my own superb source of low-volume commentary, the performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. He was dressed all in black leather and slumped down in his seat with a hangover. He kept murmuring, almost from the start, “Rebecca, I do not believe what I am seeing.”
Early in the film, Taylor’s Maryland debutante Leslie Lynnton simultaneously captivates and annoys Jordan Benedict II, the West Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson, the former by being a flirtatious and lovely woman, the latter by speaking her mind. Freudian motif alert: he’s come to buy a stallion — a gleaming black horse that she rides magnificently in the opening scene — from her father. At breakfast the morning after they meet, she tells him that she’s been up all night reading about his home state. He prepares to be flattered when she adds, “We really stole Texas! . . . I mean away from Mexico.”
It’s a demurely outrageous scene, complicated by the handsome African-American butler whose nonplussed expression gets some camera attention along with Hudson’s choke on his toast. The film, made the year after Brown v. Board of Education and its little-remembered parallel case, Hernandez v. Texas, takes on race in Texas, a white and brown affair, though it leaves out the politics of being black in the South. It’s not a perfect polemic, and falls within the suspect genre of racial justice as seen from the perspective of a white ally, but it’s nevertheless extraordinary for a blockbuster filmed while Martin Luther King Jr. was finishing graduate school and Rosa Parks was still giving up her seat.
We really stole Texas. It’s an amazing thing to say even now, and as an observation Elizabeth Taylor offers over breakfast to a cattle baron besotted with his homeland, it’s astonishing. The year that Guillermo and I watched Giant turn forty — 1996 — California was in the midst of an era of immigrant-bashing, driven by various myths that shifted the burden of a brutal new economy from its lords and masters to its underclass. That year was also the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican War, which ended two years later with the United States seizing Mexico’s northern half, the rich expanse from New Mexico to California that, had it remained in Mexican hands, might have led to a wildly different global geopolitics and, perhaps, poor Yankees sneaking across the border for jobs in the superpower to the southwest. (Texas, of course, had been stolen earlier.) Amnesia has long been an important component of the ideology of demonizing Latino immigrants and residents, from the Gold Rush to California governor Pete Wilson in the 1990s to the current Republican presidential nominee.
But anyway: Jordan Benedict II survives the truth from the mouth of a beautiful woman, and a scene or two later they’re newlyweds speeding home in his private railcar. First seen riding to hounds across the rolling green countryside of the Mid-Atlantic, Leslie is shocked by life on the scorched grasslands of west Texas. But she adjusts to her surroundings. And makes adjustments to them: she starts meddling with the treatment of Latino workers on the half-million-acre ranch, having found herself in not only an arid country but an apartheid one. There her husband rules like Abraham in the land of Canaan. Mighty are his herds, vast his lands. Among other things, the film seems to propose that the great division in the United States is not necessarily the famous Civil War configuration of North–South but rather East–West, with differences of manners, histories, ecologies, and scale. It’s clear that Leslie thinks that meeting people who speak Spanish means she’s arrived in another country.
The horse Leslie rode with confidence in that opening scene has come with her, so she’s identified with the stud, the stallion, the wild force — a nice subversion of the idea that the East represents ethereal inaction. In an early scene, her husband and sister-in-law insist she’s too delicate to stay on her spirited steed or out on the roundup under a broiling sun. They dispatch her in a vehicle driven by James Dean’s character, layabout handyman Jett Rink. Of course, he falls for her, in part because she treats him with gracious respect (in part because she’s the most gorgeous thing the world has ever seen).
Leslie’s brusque sister-in-law, who lives and breathes ranching and bullying, manages to kill herself and the stallion by digging in her spurs and fighting the power of a horse used to kinder riders. She breaks his leg; he breaks her skull; she expires on a sofa; he is put down off camera. But before the film gets to her death scene; a resurrection thread starts. Leslie gets Jett to stop the car at the barrio of shacks in which the ranch’s Latino workers live, and there she finds a sick mother and baby. When the doctor comes to tend to her dying sister-in-law, Leslie violates the segregation of the place by making him do something more useful — save the life of an infant named Ángel Obregón.
It’s a freak: a wildly successful mid-1950s Technicolor film about race, class, and gender from a radical perspective, with a charismatic, unsubjugated woman at the center. True, there were other left-wing movies made back then. Salt of the Earth, also told from the perspective of a strong woman, had been released in 1954, but it was a diligent, black-and-white film about a New Mexico miners’ strike that Hollywood soon blacklisted; the lavishly colorful Giant was nominated for numerous Oscars, won for best director, and raked in huge box office. It reached a lot of people, which is what we would like propaganda and advocacy to do; Giant suggests that pleasure helps (as do budgets).
Works of art that can accompany you through the decades are mirrors in which you can see yourself, wells in which you can keep dipping. They remind you that what you bring to the work of art is as important as what it brings to you. They can become registers of how you’ve changed. If Giant is a different film with each decade, perhaps that’s because I am a different person, focused on different things in the world around me.
It took another decade for me to recognize that Giant is also about a marriage, one that is strong but not easy, between two people who survive profound disagreements with forbearance and persistence. It’s called Giant after the scale of things in Texas, and Rock Hudson is a mountain of a man who looms over everyone, but it could have been called Giantess. Taylor’s Leslie Benedict possesses a moral stature and a fearlessness that overshadow all else: she tells off powerful men, acts on behalf of the people who are supposed to be invisible, and generally fights authority. She doesn’t lose much, either, though she accommodates. Her husband mostly reacts and tries to comprehend. Virginia Woolf once remarked that Mary Wollstonecraft’s lover Gilbert Imlay had, in involving himself with the great feminist revolutionary, tried to catch a minnow “and hooked a dolphin, and the creature rushed him through the waters till he was dizzy.” Jordan Benedict is often dizzy, but unlike Imlay he never unhooks himself.
Watching Jordan absorb the impact of this relationship — the realization that you might not get what you want or know what to do next or agree with the person you love — is sobering, and Hudson plays it well, with complex emotions moving across his big smooth slab of a face like clouds moving across the prairie. “You knew what a frightful girl I was when you married me,” Leslie tells Jordan at one point. There are a lot of movies about how to get into a relationship, about falling in love, and some about falling out, but not many about keeping at it through the years.
How long does it take to see something, to know someone? When we put in years, we realize how little we grasped at the start, even when we thought we knew. We move through life mostly not seeing what is around us, not knowing who is around us, not understanding the forces pressuring us, not understanding ourselves. Unless we stay with it, and maybe this is really a movie about staying with it. This year, at the sixtieth-anniversary, the familiar joys remained, but I noticed nuances of the plot that had escaped me before.
The worst thing imaginable happens to our protagonists: they have a son who grows up to become Dennis Hopper. Jordan Benedict III is a red-haired, uneasy, shifty, anxious man who as a child feared horses and as an adult wants to be a doctor, and seems to become one remarkably quickly. Without his parents’ knowledge, he also marries Juana Guerra, a Latina nurse, played by the Mexican actress Elsa Cárdenas.
As Juana draws her white in-laws into a series of charged battles, the film marks the shift from widely tolerated segregation and discrimination to a nascent civil-rights era. First she’s turned away from a new hotel, where the hairdressers refuse to style her, then from the diner where she stops with her son, her husband, and her in-laws on their way home. An ostentatiously humble Latino trio (the actors look as though they rode with Pancho Villa) is ejected from the establishment. Hudson, decades into the story line (hours into the movie), finally rises to the occasion and punches the diner’s huge chef, who punches him back more effectually. Hudson loses the fight but wins Taylor’s admiration for slugging his way into civil-rights activism, a rebel with a cause.
Hopper’s character refuses to contemplate taking over the ranch, and though one of his two sisters is a born rancher, she breaks her father’s heart by telling him that she wants a small place where she and her cowhand husband can try out new scientific methods. In the scene where Hudson’s character realizes that he has begotten children but no dynasty or heirs, Mineo’s Ángel Obregón, acknowledged a few scenes earlier as the best man in the place, lingers in the background.
The film seems to suggest that if only Hudson’s character could overcome his racism, a true heir is at hand, the man his wife had saved from death years before. Instead, Ángel goes unrecognized and unacknowledged and comes home from the Second World War in a coffin.
This time around I realized that gently, slowly, the movie has denied the patriarch every form of patriarchal power; his wife does not obey and often does not respect him, his children refuse his plans for them. Ranching itself ceases to be the great pivotal industry that defines Texas; oil has changed everything, and Jett Rink, the surly ranch hand he despised, has become a tycoon. Jordan Benedict II, one of the biggest ranchers in Texas, has been denied all the forms of power that matter to him, the film tells us, and that’s just fine, for him as much as anyone, once he gets over it. The shift is not just from cows to crude, but from patriarchy to some kind of negotiated reshuffling of everything, the beginning of our contested contemporary era. The film also points to the rise of Latinos from a small minority to a powerful force in the United States — nearly 20 percent of the population, and twice that in Texas.
Part of the astonishment, I realized as I watched Giant this year, is that this is a film about a man who finds he can’t control anything at all, and yet he’s not Job and this is not a jeremiad. That would presume that he should control things, and that it’s sad when he doesn’t. It would propose that kings should not be deposed. This film postulates the opposite: the king has fallen — as he does, literally, in the diner — and everything is fine. That’s what makes it radical. I’ve always seen the film as being about Taylor’s outsized character, but maybe it’s an anti-bildungsroman about the coming of middle age and the surrendering of illusions, including the illusion of control. The disobedient son, Jordan Benedict III, presents his father with a grandson to carry on the family name, Jordan Benedict IV, a brown child whose big brown eyes, I finally noticed, are the closing shot of the film. This, says Giant, is the future; get used to it.