Spring 2018


Giant Steps

The making of George Stevens' Texas-sized epic is recounted in Don Graham's meticulously chronicled book


From left: George Stevens, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and director George Stevens on location in Texas for Giant. (Photo: AMPAS)

The most curious thing about Don Graham's Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (St. Martin's Press) is the conspicuous—perhaps unforgivable—omission of George Stevens' name from the title. As the book makes clear, this generational epic, which centers on a cattle baron and his blueblood feminist bride, could only have been made possible through Stevens' gravitas, arduous prep, obsessive attention to detail, massaging of disparate egos and pushback against studio demands. He would win the DGA Award and an Oscar for his efforts.

Lots of ink is spent on the film's stars, especially Dean, since he was the wild card in the cast: difficult, sullen, both insecure and narcissistic, and on a continual quest to upstage his co-stars.

Not unlike Peter Biskind's approach to '70s cinema with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Graham ladles out plenty of dishy material on the marquee players' professional peccadillos and messy private lives.

But it was Stevens—his career cresting in the wake of such classics as A Place in the Sun and Shane—who acted as the production's Rock of Gibraltar, immovable in his determination to see his vision through without compromise or interference. The values that caused him to take an unflinching approach to the film's sub-themes of class warfare and racial discrimination were hardened by his experiences documenting Nazi atrocities at Dachau and Nordhausen a decade before.

Stevens could get under his actors' skin by demanding innumerable takes and manipulating his cast in ways that made him seem like an avuncular mentor one minute, and an impossible-to-please father figure the next. At his best, Stevens was pegged "a master psychologist… allowing people to do what [he wanted] by making them think it was their idea."

As Graham reports, Shane star Alan Ladd, who turned down the role of Texas wildcatter Jett Rink (played by Dean), said he "learned more about acting from [Stevens] in a few months than I had in my entire life up until then."

It would have been easy to fire Dean early on in the production since the 24 year old seemed bent on disrupting the proceedings from the beginning. But Stevens knew he was mining gold from the mercurial, Method-trained performer. "Jimmy was never a courteous actor," Stevens recalled. "If he had a big scene, he would do his best to throw the actors playing with him. This was not because of a desire to star. It was because he felt that the scene belonged to his character." (Dean died in a car accident shortly after principal photography was completed.)

The 114-day shoot would end up running more than a month over schedule and $3 million over budget ($49.3 million today), and it would take a year to edit the 875,000 feet of film down to the final three-hour-plus running time, well beyond Jack Warner's desired 2½-hour length.

As Graham recounts, even Stevens' son George Jr. thought his father was excessively devoted to the editing process, cautioning the filmmaker to quit tinkering with footage even after three audience previews proved overwhelmingly positive. The elder Stevens reply was, "When you think about how many man-hours people will spend watching this picture, don't you think it's worth a little more of our time to make it as good as we can?"

(Photo: AMPAS)


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