The more you see GIANT, the bigger it gets.. it's one of those few films that--in Manny Farber-speak--is both termite and white elephant art at the same time, all the time. It's that big. It's a half a million acres of awesomeness, with enough room for James Dean, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson to all stretch their claws and method-actin' longhorn feet out, AND have two great hotter younger sisters--AND some touching depictions of overcoming racist predispositions-- all in the same goddamned film.
Carolyn Craig starts out in the opening reels as Liz Taylor's hotter younger sister. There's not much to the role except she's cool, supportive, and casual in her tomboyish outfits (she wears what looks like daddy's shirts all balled up in front to make them fit). She and Liz have a deadpan droll sort of sisterly rapport though there's little time to display it before Craig's whisked offscreen to slowly hem in Liz's hand-me down suitor, Rod "THE TIME MACHINE" Taylor. Like Rod, Craig also has good cult movie roots via THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959, pictured). She's hotter in HILL but in GIANT she at least gives us a nice slim-hipped modern counterpoint to Liz's more classical personage.
Caroll Baker trumps all comers as GIANT's second half's hotter younger sister, bringing her BABY DOLL twang (it was made the same year) as Luz Benedict II, twirling her phone cord and rolling around on the ground, she makes the most of her every scene, including delivering one of the slowest bar stool dismounts in the history of cinema. She's got a crush on James Dean's (now middle-aged) oilman Jett Rink and lets him know via lots of eyelash batting and lip-biting when he comes calling on Xmas day. Dean slurs good-bye to her in one long southern drawl of a syllable: "Everybody call me Jet, honey." The drunk masculine gravity in his voice seems to ground Baker like insulation, but she pulls herself back out of the wall in time for a last coquettish gaze as she exeunts so Jet and dad can "talka-lill bishness".
The other Benedict children and their chosen spouses, however, seem stunt-casted to encourage our sharing Rock's cattleman-like disgust with them. Dennis Hopper is so deliberately square as the son and the Mexican girl he gets the Santa Anna wind-sparked handshake with is so utterly average looking--aside from having pretty sparkling eyes--that you want to disown them both, or at least spike their lemonade and order them to loosen up. Juanita's an old school Catholic stereotype--replete with horrible fashion sense-- and the priest who marries them is humorlessly frumpy and even his impoverished church looks like it's sweating; Stevens is playing with our prejudices and general dislike for squares to make us feel like we're racist, but maybe we just hate squares, man, and people who wear too much technicolor-enhancing make-up, and act poor when they're rich just to be self-righteous and piss off their parents. But Hopper's twin sister isn't so hot either, going for the guy who played the drunken cook in FORBIDDEN PLANET! When I encounter kids like this at Pratt, I too want to shake them hard about the shoulders and tell them to look me in the eye as I slur about how they'll always have job on Big Riatta when they get back from the war. But they never lishen.
GIANT's race-baiting has recently struck me as rather intentionally dreary, so allow me to harp on it: the Mexicans here are like the Jews in SCHINDLER'S LIST--sad sack balloons adrift in a film about pin manufacturing. The only times we ever get to visit with Hopper and Juanita are when they're about to be thrust up against the color line by Stevens' Kramer-esque good urges. "Sorry sir, Mr. Rink would have my head if I let the wrong kinda people in," the security guard at the hotel says (it's racist Jett Rink's hotel). It's fascinating because a) what do Juanita and Dr. Benedict expect? Did they borrow Uncle Rod's time machine and come to Rink's place from the far distant future? and b) why can't Juanita--having married into immense wealth--occasionally try to not look like a humble peasant instead of the very wealthy doctor she is, even if it does mar their spotless record of humorless liberal martyrdom? If she went in wearing a mink and some decent shoes and acted like she owned the place, she could have been as Mexican as she wanted to. And what kind of woman arrives at a hotel after a long trip with a screaming baby and wants instantly to go to some strange beauty parlor in a hotel where she already had trouble from security? It's underhanded is what it is, like Stevens is a lefty reporter tricking the couple into setting off a newsworthy incident; it's passive-aggressive, and doggone it, it just ain't Texan!
If you want to really make some statements that will fuck with the status quo, how about having the Mexican chick be sexier than Liz Taylor? Or not talk like she's a simple but goodhearted peasant still learning the English? Why not have her get into people's faces about it when they step to her shit, speaking rapidly and clearly and intelligently and looking damned sharp in some expensive gown. I know the actress who plays Juanita--Elsa Cardenas--is capable of it, look at her in the picture above, with Elvis Presley (From FUN IN ACAPULCO) in a movie made in 1963, a full seven years later! Goddamned, if you had her looking like that as the wife, then even Jett Rink would change his tune, so would Liz, too, probably (in the other direction).
Dean as Jett is similarly defeated before he starts, trying to woo a a hitherto game Baker by getting shitfaced drunk and wearing his sunglasses in a very dark bar. He might have gotten her to bed if he wasn't so self-defeating and pole-cattish. I mean, he asks her what she wants and she tells him a coke and he doesn't give it to her? All she wanted was a coke, and he wouldn't give it to her! Institution! He's giving her nothing to hold onto but a lot of method acting tomfoolery, which is so painfully like my own seduction strategy I can barely stand to watch it forty times.
Even when saying good-bye to him without him knowing (he's too drunk to see her way across the room) through some method door-lock caressing, Baker seems pretty turned on, alternating current between saddened and revolted, as if mentally sifting the balance between Jet's drinking and sleaziness vs. his being James Dean and loaded. It never occurred to me before but seeing GIANT now I don't see this as the end of possibilities that Jett and Luz II will end up together. In the last scene we learn Luz has gone onto Hollywood to be an actress, and I just know Jett's going to fly out there and start producing pictures for little ole Luz to star in, and he'll turn into George Peppard and they'll live happy-go-drunkily ever-after in Edward Dmytryk's THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964).
Yeah, so they dubbed Dean's voice because I guess his drunken slur was too incoherent to get across that he's really in love with Leslie in the big climax, as if we didn't already know that, as if we wouldn't rather hear Dean read a goddamned laundry list than go to the circus, and I don't know what Jett's thinkin' anyway, since Carrol Baker trumps all in the hotness dept, even if she's meant to come across as a tad vapid. There's no real debate though, because by then Liz is wearing so much silver make-up she could be opening for Ziggy Stardust (then again, Dean would like that sort of thing). At least the narrative winds down to a nice roadside cafe where Rock finally finds his own true love, a racist loudmouth big enough that it's finally, after all these years, a fair fight.