Apr 11, 2018

Book Review--Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film

Giant:Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film
Don Graham
St. Martin's Press, 2018

Edna Ferber’s Giant is an epic book that was adapted into an epic Hollywood film. That production featured a cast of Hollywood legends, up-and-coming stars, and durable character actors. In a new book, Don Graham reveals what happened when all these personalities coexisted for a time on a remote location in Marfa, Texas.

The book is at its juiciest when it dishes about its leads: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. While I did not find much new here about these stars, the juxtaposition of their histories demonstrates what an odd trio they were: perfectly matched in some respects, horribly at odds in others. This is reflected in their varied relationships on set, where Dean and Hudson despised each other, while Taylor went back and forth between the two, having dramatically different experiences with both men.

Around these three there was another social whirl, with supporting players for the most part excluded from the company of the stars like high school outcasts. Some, like emerging method actress Caroll Baker would find themselves drawn into that exclusive crowd and intoxicated by the acceptance. Others, like the seasoned Mercedes McCambridge, were less concerned with status, instead focusing on finding comfort and entertainment during a grueling shoot.

So much of the production of the film is about these relationships and how director George Stevens presided over the group. For that reason, it makes sense that cast and crew interactions dominate the story here. This isn’t a film about technical issues, but rather the culture it reflected and the community that brought it to the screen. Author Edna Ferber felt strongly about her novel and the way that it was translated to the screen, and though she had little power over how the adaptation was approached, she never failed to provide input, and her point of view contrasts in an interesting way with the Hollywood take on Texas.

Graham also digs into the details of pre-production and the critical reception after the film’s release. He shares a some interesting tidbits, like the fact that Stevens seriously courted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Leslie Benedict and that he originally envisioned Alan Ladd as Jett Rink. It’s intriguing to imagine how dramatically these casting choices would have changed Giant.

This is a compelling portrait of a massive film. It covers a lot of ground, but remains engaging. I thought there was more biographical background than necessary on the three stars, but found the production notes fascinating and a solid document of the complexities in managing such a massive production.

Many thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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