According to film reviewers, and film critics since, Giant features three giant-sized acting performances. As I will explain, this is not necessarily a compliment.
In Giant, three actors get star billing: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for an Academy Award for their performances (neither won). Taylor was not nominated. She would get her first nomination for Best Actress the next year, for Raintree County (1957).
As our textbook authors make clear, movie actor and movie star are not synonymous terms. In terms of mise-en-scène, actors are basically props (they are merely elements in the composition); in terms of the Hollywood star system, stars are commodities, brands.
Pramaggiore and Wallis write: “Stars create a following by developing a memorable and recognizable persona. . . . Many stars often play one type of character and perfect one style of performance” (Film: A Critical Introduction 369).
Pramaggiore and Wallis argue that the movie star is part of the larger ideological structure of American society. They write: “Mainstream narrative films tend to express popular sentiment and often reflect the dominant ideological assumptions of their culture. . . . Stars function as cultural barometers, embodying the political, moral, and cultural assumptions of those fans who consume their images” 375, That is, “stars reveal cultural attitudes toward race, class, religion, politics, and culture” (376).
Our textbook authors draw upon the work of film critic Richard Dyer in their explanation of the Hollywood movie star. Quoting Dyer: “the star phenomenon depends upon collapsing the distinction between the star-as-person and the star-as-performer” (qtd. in Film 371).
Pramaggiore and Wallis continue:
Dyer argues that a star’s image is constructed across four different public arenas: films, promotion, publicity, and commentary. During the studio era, studios kept stars under contract for years at a time. This allowed the studios to craft each star’s image carefully by developing appropriate movies for them and controlling (in most cases) how audiences perceived each star’s life offscreen, (371).
Just as actor and star are not synonymous, neither can we equate the onscreen persona of the star and his or her offscreen life. An excellent example of this is Rock Hudson.
At TCM, Leonard Maltin reports that Hudson was not the first choice to play Jordan “Bick” Benedict. But given that he was the top male box-office draw of 1955, it’s not surprising that the “beefcake” Hudson got the role.
Hudson’s Oscar nod for Giant was the only such nomination he would ever receive from the American Film Academy. That’s one Best Actor nomination over a career spanning 69 films, from 1948-1984.
Hudson was not known as a great actor. He was known as a great star. As a star, Hudson epitomized what our textbook authors (following film critic Barry King) call the acting style of “personification”: Hudson basically kept playing himself, or rather his celebrity persona, over and over. This was not necessarily his choice. It was part of the star treatment. Film projects were created with Hudson particularly in mind, providing an arena for the star to play the star.
Since he was so busy playing the movie star, Hudson didn’t often get the opportunity to act for real. What makes Hudson’s performance in Giant so unique is that he was allowed a little space to stretch his acting muscles (with an Oscar nomination to show for it). Unlike the typical star role, in Giant Hudson plays Bick Benedict as a mixed character. He is the hero, but he’s not always likable (because he’s racist); Hudson remarked that, when he went anonymously to a screening of the film, he was shocked that his character was actually booed (Noted in Maltin).
For almost most of his performances, Rock had to be a rock – hard, chiseled,emotionally distant. There is some of this in Giant, which makes his performance somewhat blocky. His role is out-sized, giant-sized. An in this sense, as mentioned above, this is not a compliment but rather reflects the function of the star, rather than the performance of the actor.
With his urbane charm, dashing good looks, and virile masculinity, Rock Hudson epitomized Hollywood’s classic matinee idol image. . . . One of the most popular movie stars of his time, Hudson’s screen career spanned five decades and was a shining example of Hollywood’s classical “star system”-style career promotion – his early success coming as the result of careful cultivation and nurturing by major movie studios.
Hudson, born with the name Leroy Sherer (and later taking on the last name of his adopted step-father, Wallace Fitzgerald), was discovered by the well-known talent scout (and openly homosexual) Henry Willson, and signed to a Hollywood contract, in 1948.
According to author Robert Barrios’s 2002 best-seller Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, the openly homosexual Willson almost single-handedly launched Hollywood’s highly profitable “beefcake craze” of the 1950’s, thanks to his knack for discovering and renaming young actors “whose visual appeal transcended any lack of ability.”
Maltin cites Hollywood folklore in relating that Willson changed Roy Fitzgerald’s name to the more masculine sounding “Rock Hudson” by combining the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River.
Robert Keser remarks that
The tender attentions of Willson, including his role in shaping gay or bisexual actors into ostensibly straight-arrow silver-screen idols, were no secret in the business but jealously kept under wraps from the audiences who bought tickets for the fantasy played out in fan magazines. Willson was the face of a cynical system, supported by an unseen infrastructure of fixers and studio connections who enabled the mythmaking.
The mythmaking was a lucrative enterprise for all concerned. Maltin makes the claim that:
As a contract player for a major Hollywood studio, Hudson enjoyed a degree of job security that would disappear along with the studio system decades later. Cared for and jealously protected as a valuable studio asset, Hudson was literally groomed for leading man status. Studio P.R. flacks used their pull to push magazine publishers into plastering Hudson’s handsome mug across the covers of countless film magazines.
The film studios for whom Hudson worked toiled 24/7 to protect their property (their “piece of the rock”), particularly in the four public areas mentioned in relation to Richard Dyer. They created film projects that would highlight Hudson’s talents and charisma. They used Rock Hudson’s name to promote these and other films. They tightly controlled the publicity surrounding the star. Similarly, to ensure good commentary by film reviewers and critics, the studios jealously maintained access (or lack of access) to Hudson.
One major element of this effort was to keep Hudson’s homosexuality under wraps. Maltin writes:
As Hudson’s marquee value increased, however, so too did the pressure to hide his homosexuality. In 1955, as a pre-emptive measure, Henry Willson arranged a marriage of convenience between Hudson and his (Willson’s) secretary, Phyllis Gates. Much to his credit, according to Hudson biographer, Sara Davidson, the actor made an earnest go at trying to make the sham marriage work. Unfortunately, the effort failed and the two subsequently divorced in 1958. In the meantime, however, with Hudson’s heterosexuality firmly established in the public eye, his acting career soared to new heights. A year after his highly publicized nuptials, Hudson landed his biggest payday to date – $100,000 to star in “Giant”(1956)
The thing Willson was trying to pre-empt was the threatened “outing” of Hudson in the scandal magazine Confidential. Hudson’s sham marriage was part of Willson’s vindication campaign. As a diversion, Willson offered up two of his other beefcake boys, Tyler Calhoun and Tab Hunter, exposing them as closeted gay actors. This was done in order to save (and keep safely closeted) his most lucrative property, Rock Hudson.
Given his world-famous movie star persona, it came as a shock, in 1985, when Hudson finally came out of the closet, after announcing to the world that he had contracted AIDS. According to Maltin:
As the first high-profile Hollywood celebrity to die from AIDS, Hudson’s greatest legacy may have come in death. Casually dismissed for far too long as just a “gay disease” by the public, AIDS research had traditionally held a low priority among the medical establishment. After Hudson put a recognizable face on the disease, however, public awareness of AIDS increased dramatically. Hudson’s death also galvanized the Hollywood community for the first time to take a stance against the plight, helping to raise money and erase some of the stigma attached with the disease – typified best by his good friend Elizabeth Taylor’s activism, done in honor of her doomed friend. Had it not been for Hudson, it is unknown when, if ever, Hollywood would have come around to embrace this tradition of compassion and awareness regarding AIDS.
It was finally clear that when it came to his personal life, Rock Hudson was in fact a brilliant and very convincing actor. It was his greatest role.
Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest legacy, in the minds of many, also involved AIDS. Her tireless work on behalf of people living with AIDS at the end of her life and career was inspired by her many friendships with gay or bisexual male actors, including Rock Hudson and James Dean.
It’s more than a little ironic that the Hollywood star known universally for her stupendous beauty would have as her best friends gay men. This does not include, of course, her eight marriages to seven different men (she married Richard Burton twice). For Taylor, husbands are not necessarily friends.
Maltin writes of Taylor:
With the arguable exception of Marilyn Monroe, no other star from Hollywood’s Golden Age exerted a more enduring hold on the public’s imagination than Elizabeth Taylor. For nearly 70 years, the press chronicled every element of Taylor’s very public private life, which was fraught with more melodrama, romantic intrigue, and scandal than the collected works of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins combined.
Coming from a theatrical family – and with a classic, micro-managing stage-manager mother – Taylor broke into films early, as a child actress. Her break-through role was as Velvet Brown, in National Velvet, when she was 13 years old.
Maltin claims that “thanks to National Velvet, Taylor finally became a bona fide movie star. Unlike many of her classmates at the studio’s little red schoolhouse, she never went through a career-ending ‘awkward stage.’ The ethereally lovely adolescent blossomed into a drop-dead gorgeous ingénue, equally believable playing teenagers and older women alike.”
Rock Hudson ended up as a cautionary tale, but Taylor, with her eight marriages, was one her entire career. This was particularly true when, after the death of her husband Mike Todd in 1958, Taylor became involved with Todd’s best friend, the crooner Eddie Fisher. Fisher was then happily married to “America’s Sweetheart,” Debbie Reynolds. Fisher divorced Reynolds and became husband number 4 for Taylor. It took a life-threatening illness and recovery in 1961 for Taylor to rebound from her highly-publicized infidelity and husband-snatching.
Taylor experienced the double-standard built into the Hollywood star system. Whereas an abortive marriage was just what Rock Hudson needed to remain a star, too much matrimony was a publicity problem for Taylor. In Hollywood, men were encouraged to be promiscuous bad boys, while women were encouraged to be paragons of monogamous domesticity.
After seeing any of Taylor’s performances on screen, it should come as no surprise that Taylor had little patience with such double standards, and with the star system in general.
In her New York TImes obituary, Mel Gussow makes that point:
For many years she was high on the list of box-office stars. Even when her movies were unsuccessful, or, late in her career, when she acted infrequently, she retained her fame: there was only one Liz (a nickname she hated), and her celebrity increased the more she lived in the public eye. There was nothing she could do about it. “The public me,” she said, “the one named Elizabeth Taylor, has become a lot of hokum and fabrication – a bunch of drivel – and I find her slightly revolting.”
Taylor was very aware that her stardom was a studio construction, as fake as any of the roles written for her.
People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky – enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. . . . Her life was played out in print: miles of newspaper and magazine articles, a galaxy of photographs and a shelf of biographies, each one painting a different portrait.
Taylor knew full well that the actor and the star were not synonymous.
Gussow remarks that “Ms. Taylor’s popularity endured throughout her life, but critics were sometimes reserved in their praise of her acting. In that sense she may have been upstaged by her own striking beauty. Could anyone as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor also be talented? The answer, of course, was yes.”
As a film star, Taylor often acted in roles developed by the studios to feature her beauty and glamour. That is, her acting style was usually “personification, the star playing a star.
There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personality. Although she could alter her look for a part – putting on weight for Martha in “Virginia Woolf” or wearing elaborate period costumes – she was not a chameleon, assuming the coloration of a character. Instead she would bring the character closer to herself.
Unlike Hudson, Taylor fought against the straight-jacket of movie-star celebrity. She went to great lengths to distance herself from her glamorous persona, and to get roles that would showcase her acting. For her brilliant, Oscar-winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, dir. Mike Nichols), Taylor reputedly put on 30 pounds and wore a frightful gray wig, in order to portray the middle-aged Martha.
Along with some other film critics, Maltin praises Taylor’s performance as Leslie Benedict in Giant:
To play Leslie Benedict, a headstrong yet compassionate Virginia belle married to wealthy Texas cattle rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson), Taylor had to age 30-odd years convincingly. That she was more believable as a radiant newlywed than a graying, dowdy grandmother did not diminish what was an excellent performance that held up beautifully. Yet while her male co-stars both received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor – Dean, posthumously – Taylor’s finely modulated performance in Giant was overlooked by the Motion Picture Academy. [Note: Leslie Benedict was a Maryland, not a Virginia, belle.]
In order to perform so well, Taylor had to transcend – or rather descend from – her star status, to act in the style of “impersonation” rather than “personification.” She had to bury the star in her performance, to lose herself in the role, to create Leslie Benedict rather than re-create Liz Taylor the star.
With just three film credits to his name, dying at the age of 24, James Dean was a shooting star.
It wasn’t until his dramatic and premature death in a car accident that Dean became a star. Maltin observes that “Dean’s early death forever froze him as that surly but sensitive teenager and made him the epitome of all that was ‘cool’.”
Pramaggiore and Wallis also testify to the “cool-ness” of Dean: “For audiences of all ages, Dean’s name is synonymous with modern angst and youthful rebellion, although he starred in only three feature films. Dean is such an pervasive component of American popular culture that, with out a doubt, many who have not seen on e of his movies have some sense of Dean’s magnetic persona” (365-366).
But a good bit of Dean’s cool persona was manufactured by the film studios that paid him. Pramaggiore and Wallis write that “America’s lingering obsession with figures such as . . . Dean exemplifies the star culture that is central to the economic success of Hollywood and other film industries. As anyone who owns a poster for Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause can attest, audiences do not just appreciate a star’s performance onscreen, they also consume the public image that a star gradually acquires over the course of a career” (366).
It’s quite likely that, had he lived longer, Dean would have rebelled against his handlers and resisted his star status. But one thing he went along with was the studio’s whitewashing of his polymorphous sexuality. In the annals of gay Hollywood, Dean is often cited (though Dean did have relationships with women, making him bisexual).
While in Hollywood, Dean had one documented affair with a man (Rogers Brackett), and was rumored to have had others. As with Rock Hudson, Dean’s studio (Warners) kept Dean’s relationships with men under wraps and played up his relationships with women, such as the ethereal Italian actress, Pier Angeli.
Perhaps because he was a newly-minted (and now posthumous) star, Dean’s performance in Giant is more indelible and varied.
Maltin writes that “on September 30, 1955, four days after filming his final scenes, Dean was killed in a car crash near Salinas, CA. Many reviews singled Dean out for praise, and the Variety review called Dean’s performance “outstanding,” and stated that “the film only proves what a promising talent has been lost.”
Andrew Urban remarks:
James Dean who scorches his character into our hearts and minds with a performance that rages under a cool outer skin. The hat over a bowed head, pulled far down over his face, the voice kept low and the emotions kept bottled, Dean, in his final role, gives the performance of his life. And his screen time is far less than Hudson’s or Taylor’s.
Dean was a movie star who had not yet been cemented into the cell of celebrity. He had not yet called upon to play the star, according to the “personification” acting style of Hollywood. In fact, he was known as the leading proponent of “The Method,” an extreme form of the “impersonation” style of acting.
In the Method acting style, the actor typically does a lot of research, and submerges him or herself in the role, playing the character even on the set and in the actor’s trailer. Many actors today follow Dean’s lead in their Method acting (to cite just one example, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis in his recent Oscar-winning portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln).
Another thing lost to posterity when Dean died in his fiery car crash was the possibility of seeing, over the long term, in the same person, the Method Actor duking it out with the Hollywood movie star. Then again, we get a glimpse of it in Giant. This is what makes Dean’s performance in Giant giant-like. And in his case it is a compliment.
Though Dean’s filmography is significantly shorter than Rock Hudson’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s, I give to him the last word on acting. Dean once said (in a sense defining The Method):
An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet. In the short span of his lifetime, an actor must learn all there is to know, experience all there is to experience, or approach that state as closely as possible. He must be superhuman in his efforts to store away in the core of his subconscious everything that he might be called upon to use in the expression of his art. (Qtd. in Maltin).
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“A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour” (obituary for Elizabeth Taylor)
The New York TImes
March 23, 2011
“Inside the Dreamboat Factory: The Fairy Godfather of Hollywood”
Bright Lights Film Journal
“Overview of Elizabeth Taylor”
“Overview of James Dean”
“Overview of Rock Hudson”
Film: A Critical Introduction
Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis