Giant's Auteur—George Stevens
Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film
by Don Graham
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
336 pp. $27.99 cloth.
When I reviewed Glen Frankel's book about the movie The Searchers, I wondered how a writer could find that much to say about one movie. It turned out that Frankel had lots to say about the writing and the filming of the movie, but he also had insights and anecdotes about the cast, the source novel’s author, and John Ford, the film’s director. Frankel also wrote of the historical figures that the book and movie were based on, the Parker family of East Texas and Quanah Parker. It worked. I praised the book. Now I am less surprised to see another book about a single movie, Don Graham's Giant.
Don Graham is one of Texas’s finest chroniclers. He’s written extensively about the Lone Star State as well as how Texas is portrayed in film. Some of his other works include No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy and his book on the history of the King Ranch, Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire. It is fitting that he now takes on the epic movie that shows Texas in flux during the mid-twentieth century. Research has always been one of Graham’s strengths, which can be easily seen here with the pages and pages of footnotes. This is the definite book about film for both the scholar and the average cinephile.
Of course, no book is perfect, and neither is this one. The subtitle, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making Of A Legendary Movie, essentially shows the subjects Graham researched thoroughly. The best information in the book is what Graham recorded about director George Steven's difficulties on set. Though there were multiple problems, one of the biggest was directing James Dean.
Graham spends a lot of time (and research) trying to explain the strange behavior of Dean, on and off the set. The many pages about Dean's childish behavior before the filming are less germane or needed. Dean revealed his childish ways time after time during the filming, particularly in the scenes in West Texas. Graham recounts numerous incidents, one of the most telling was the time the press was taking publicity shots of Elizabeth Taylor. Dean "sneaked up behind her, grabbed her, and flipped her upside down, showing her panties." Graham reports how the director also had to deal with Dean's influence on other actors: "His unconventional physicality sometimes caused other actors to 'loll, sway, and shamble, too.'" Graham reports in detail all of these conflicts. Most impressive about director George Stevens's work was his devotion to editing, particularly in resisting the studio’s insistence that he cut specific scenes in order to bring the film's running time to under two hours.
There's much more in Graham's Giant than the Making of the Legendary Movie, but that's the best of it, and George Stevens is its hero.
Dick Heaberlin is a professor of English at Texas State University.