by Tony Dayoub
This post is a contribution to The Late Show - The Late Movies Blogathon running through December 7th and hosted by David Cairns of Shadowplay.
I'm sure it's been written about, but personally, I'm just speculating when I say that a classicist like George Stevens (Shane) probably had his hands full tamping down the Method-y exuberance of rising star James Dean when they collaborated on what would be the doomed actor's final film, Giant (1956). But why guess, when you can see the lengths Stevens went to in order to keep Dean from running away with Giant in the movie itself? Let's look at some screen grabs (off the new Giant Blu-ray and which can all be enlarged if you click on them) of three key scenes featuring Dean.
Here's the first shot in Giant in which all three of the leads appear simultaneously. It is also James Dean's introduction. In the foreground, newlyweds Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) have just arrived from their honeymoon to Bick's nearly 600,000 acre ranch, Reata. Dean's character, Jett Rink, is the little dot all the way in the background that looks like a man working on his car.
The next few shots of Dean look like this, but Rink is silent and all we hear is a conversation between Leslie and Bick offscreen.
When we next see Rink, it's in this big beautiful close-up, but notice how his face and particularly his eyes are mostly shrouded by the shadow of his ten-gallon.
The next time we see the three leads in one shot it is a reverse angle where Rink has pride of place in the right foreground of the frame. Stevens continues to isolate Dean from his co-stars, who are silhouetted in the home's screened-in-porch, and Dean's back is to the viewer.
Even the next series of shots in which we finally see Rink in a full-length frontal view are frustrating because Dean is obscured by the porch screen and, at some points, by the larger-framed Hudson.
Here's something very interesting. Eventual rivals Bick and Rink, at this point still top boss and cattle hand, finally share the screen, their opposition to each other stressed by Stevens separating them by caging them in frames within the frame. The tall Hudson doesn't need any help in the height department, but Stevens still positions him in a considerably higher position than the diminutive Dean. But look at who starts to have the best spot in the composition, occupying the larger frame.
Rink comes to occupy the same frame as Leslie, who has little patience for her husband's deep class, racial and sexist prejudices. But while Rink has been at the losing end of the class struggle all of his life, it will eventually become evident he shares the same regressive outlook on things as Bick. Stevens is placing Dean and Taylor (center) in the same frame to deceive us into thinking their characters are not so far apart. But remember, Taylor's back is to us. Leslie's response to Rink is unavailable to us.
Finally, Dean's Rink is inevitably centered and foregrounded in the frame, isolating Bick from Leslie. The triangle has been established, and Dean's natural tendency to eclipse his more conventional costars wins out.
Not too long after, Bick's tough sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who always cared for the down-on-his-luck Rink, dies and leaves him a small plot of land inside Reata. Rink decides to keep it to spite Bick who tries buying it at double the price in order to keep Reata intact. The next scene takes place after the wildcatting Rink strikes a gusher on his new piece of land.
Stevens continues to deglamorize Dean because of the demands of the story. Still covered in oil, Rink pulls up in a ramshackle truck to the Benedict home to rub his good fortune in the face of Bick and his powerful friends.
In the next series of shots, though Dean's handsomeness is dramatically deemphasized by the oil slathered all over him, and the fact that the camera is angled downwards at him...
...the overconfident Rink now refuses to stay off the porch, stepping onto it so that Dean now dwarfs the camera positioned below him, nearly filling up the frame.
You can't do anything about their height difference but, at least as far as positioning goes, they are in the same frame and on the same level denoting the fact that Rink and Bick are finally on equal footing.
Rink taunts Bick before...
...turning to Leslie to confess how much he covets her...
...and Bick can't help but sock him one in response.
A chastened Rink turns to leave. Notice how his filthy blackness stands in contrast to the gleaming whiteness of Rink's "betters." But Stevens is also mucking up the natural charisma the eminently watchable Dean possesses to give some favor to the more stolid Hudson.
The camera loves who it loves, though. And when Rink pops Bick back in retaliation, it is Dean the camera follows, not the tumult surrounding the fallen Hudson.
Now onto Dean's final scene in Giant which takes place decades later. Rink has become a rich oil magnate, making a deal with Bick to drill for oil on his land. Unfortunately, the now nearly 60-year-old Rink has also started a scandalous affair with Bick and Leslie's teenage daughter (Carroll Baker), offended their son (Dennis Hopper) for marrying a Mexican, and become an alcoholic. This culminates in the following sequence, the aftermath of what was supposed to be a special event honoring Rink, but turned into a fiasco where he passed out at the dais. Rink's paramour spies the next sequence from afar, and in secret.
Dean's appearance is altered, his hair receding and gray. Here he is passed out with one of his men trying to rouse him.
It might be hard to tell in this far shot, but Rink's man has given up and is now walking away on the top left. Rink is still laying on the long table at the top center frame.
When he believes he's alone Rink slowly rises. Stevens resists giving us a clear look at the aged Rink, emphasizing distance again, not only because of the isolation the character feels, but because that darn Dean is too attractive to keep in check otherwise.
In the series of shots above, Rink rises and falls again as he slurs his way through the speech he would have given earlier that night.
Bick and Leslie's daughter overhears Rink digress into a drunken lamentation over the fact that he never did consummate his love for her mother. Stevens continues to use props, camera distance and low lighting to obscure Dean.
Finally Rink slowly rises, only to collapse in a heap, taking the table down with him... an ignominious exit for Dean from Giant.
Dean would die on September 30, 1955, two weeks after he was finished shooting his scenes for Giant. Due in large part to the fact that this occurred before Stevens had a chance to have Dean return to loop this last scene, actor and Dean acolyte Nick Adams dubbed much of his dialogue here, which may also explain the camera distance. Ultimately, though it was entirely warranted by Giant's story demands, it is regretful that this would be our final look at Dean onscreen.