Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Latino Images in Film ~ Giant (1956)

Giant (1956) is a superb film which is often overshadowed by the fact that it was the iconic James Dean's 3rd and final picture. While Dean's performance is nothing short of amazing, I feel that this film has many other merits which are often overlooked. The family saga follows the story of the Benedicts and their Texas ranch Reata. Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson) runs the ranch with the same old-fashioned sentiment that was handed down to him by his ancestors. He marries fiery and compassionate Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) who balances him out and also butts heads with him in the best way a wife can. Together they raise three children and we see how the family, ranch and the world evolves over the years. The family's story parallels the story of Jett Rink (James Dean) Jordan's arch-nemesis and the oil tycoon with a trouble soul.

I believe that Giant (1956) may be one of the best films ever made, and that is no hyperbole on my part. The first time I watched it I broke down in tears as I was so moved by the story. This epic is one of the best treatments on the social issue of racism and prejudice against Mexican-Americans or even Latinos in general. It exposes the prejudice while at the same time humanizing Mexican immigrants in a way that very few films have done. Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson) has a clear idea about the separation between white Texans and Mexican "wetbacks". They work the same land but their lives are kept separate and social interaction is discouraged. When Leslie moves to Reata, she brings a compassion to her fellow human beings that disturbs Jordan. Many years later, when Jordan's son, Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries Mexican nurse Juana, Jordan has to come to terms with his irrational prejudices.

Spoiler Alert - My favorite scene comes towards the end when Jordan Benedict takes Leslie, Luz and Juana to a restaurant. The owner of the restaurant makes a big fuss about serving Mexicans like Juana and her young son. When a Mexican family tries to eat there, the owner kicks them out. This angers Jordan who now sees all Mexicans as part of his family and Jordan and the owner get into a fistfight which results in the whole family being kicked out. This is quite a momentous scene as we see Jordan come full-circle.

For how wonderful this film is, it is big on "brownface". Sal Mineo is one of the worst cases. He is almost irrecognizable with his heavy brown pancake makeup. Even the Hispanic actors such as Elsa Cardenas (Juana) were given extra foundation for some ethnic enhancement. This film goes a bit overboard with almost everyone's make-up and I think that it in part has to do with it being shot in Technicolor. Several characters get specialized makeup to show the advancement of years and with the brownface, I feel like this film was in part an experiment on the use of makeup in film to enhance the visual elements. The merits of the story as a whole I believe outdo the offense of the brownface. It's lucky that the Best Make-Up Oscar was still a few decades away, as this film may have been a contender for that time!

Level of Brown Face ~ 5 out of 5 Shades.

TCM Latino Images in Film Line-Up for Thursday May 14th

Mexican Spitfire (1940)
My Man and I (1952)
Giant (1956)
The Texican (1966)


  1. Really excellent review-- thanks!

  2. Good review! I, too, believe that Giant is one of the greatest movies ever made. I've seen it countless times, but it never gets old. I love how Jordan Benedict's character evolves throughout the movie, and like you said, comes full circle. One of my favorite parts (aside from the diner scene at the end), was when the whole family is staying at Jett Rink's new hotel, and Juana goes to the beauty parlor to get freshened up but is turned away. I want to STRANGLE that salon staff every time, but I love how Jordan Jr. stands up for her.

  3. Great job! Giant is a movie that has grown on me over the years, becoming bigger with each viewing.

    I agree that Dean's presence often overshadows it, but I think that makes it all the more pleasurable an experience once you actually see it since there's so much more to Giant than James Dean. (Despite that Jett Rink is pretty cool!)

    It's amazing how a film which from afar looks like nothing more than a star vehicle or a story of Texas, can go beyond that, tackle social issues and at the same time tell a really great story that fills over 3 hours.

    It's really impressive.

    Thanks, Cliff

  4. The diner fight is incredible to look at on a big screen, and George Stevens was one of the early masters of using music ("The Yellow Rose of Texas") to counterpoint effect. The film's attitude toward Hispanics is respectful but very dated in that they tend to be shown as humble, passive, and needing protection from noble whites. Still, the final scene with the two babies in the crib had to pack a kind of wallop in 1956. But what was with the general Hollywood impulse to exterminate Sal Mineo, which Stevens indulged in again in The Greatest Story Ever Told?

  5. Wonderful review on Giant Raquelle. I thought the film did an excellent job of exposing the racism that was going on and you were able to highlight in your blog post, the real purpose of the movie. I loved that James Dean was able to play this racist, when in actuality he was the very opposite, that is talent for you isn't it. Again, excellent job!

  6. I am always happy to see someone giving this movie its due. I think it's underrated in so many ways. In addition to tackling the issue of anti-Latino prejudice, it also takes on the question of gender roles, and what makes a man. Elizabeth Taylor marries the Texan, and in standing up to his old-style macho attitudes she makes him a *stronger* man. The scene where Hudson tries to put his little boy on a horse, and the kid just starts crying--it is hard to watch, but so well-played by everyone in the scene. The sight of young, slight Sal Mineo, in his brief role as a Mexican-American boy, going off to be a soldier is another moment that plays on our ideas of what makes a man. (The modern audience's knowing that Hudson and Mineo were gay, and Dean probably bi, gives another layer of subtext that the filmmakers may not have intended, but was probably there during the film's making anyway.)

    I also think Stevens makes superb use of Cinemascope, with many unforgettably composed shots. I could watch James Dean dance in that oil gusher all day. It is my favorite Dean moment, bar none. And that final fight in the diner -- a killer! And I find the closing shots of the white baby and the brown baby, standing in the playpen, to be quite perfect. It **could** be pure corn but instead it is very moving.

  7. P.S. I second your thoughts about the makeup. In addition to the brownface, the "aging" makeup on Taylor, Hudson and Dean is inexcusably bad, like the kind of stuff they do to make high-school students look old for the spring musical. I have no idea what could have happened, since old-age makeup had been done very well for a couple of decades at least. I have to wonder if they felt like things had to be exaggerated for the wider screen? I would love to find out.

  8. John - And thank you for reading!

    Crystal - Love your new profile picture! Is that you in Venice? I got a great feeling when Jordy (Dennis Hopper) swoops in to the beauty parlor and is so angry that he smashes the mirror behind the counter into smithereens. Yeah!

    Cliff - Jett Rink's character is amazing and Dean's performance just proves why he is so iconic! I agree that this film doesn't seem like it would have a lot going for it, but when you watch it it's really got some substance.

    Samuel - I envy you for seeing this on the big screen! Must have been a great experience.

    "The film's attitude toward Hispanics is respectful but very dated in that they tend to be shown as humble, passive, and needing protection from noble whites." - I think this still happens today...

    Nicole - But he's a lovable racist right? He's such a tortured soul we just can't help but sympathize with him like Carol Bakker and Liz Taylor's characters do.

    Campaspe - Oh my goodness! I was so surprised to see your comments. It's like the Queen came to visit one of her lowly servants. Thank you so much for writing. I like what you say about gender roles in the film, as that is something that interests me very much. Liz Taylor and Carol Bakker's characters definitely defy gender binaries.

    Maybe the makeup crew thought "big production = big makeup"? There are several times in the movie where I just want to lick my thumb and smudge off some of that makeup (or in the case of this movie, get a wet rag and wipe them down!).

  9. Smashing! You really turned on some lights I will leave on when I see it again after 20 years. Being Swedish with little to no insight in the brown-face or Mexican issues, I'm sure Giant will turn out as something completely different this time I see it. All I need now is to find a DVD of the movie, which shouldn't be too hard.

  10. Yes I must agree with you on that, he is quite the lovable racist.

  11. Great review. I've avoided this film for years. I dunno why- not a James Dean fan, and my Mom loves this, so I was spiting her as a youth I guess. But I'm recording it off Turner classics now.

  12. Jonas - I believe the US DVD is missing the intermission, hope you find it in Sverige! Superb movie and I believe you'll enjoy the musical score once you see it again.

    Nicole - true that!

    Tommy - I avoided this film too! I think I was on a Rock Hudson kick when I finally picked it up and it plain knocked me out of my seat. Please report back when you see it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  13. Just found my way over to this blog by navigating various links from other blogs... it's outstanding! I've added a link to my newly created blog as well.

    I'm in a similar boat as a lot who have commented on this post... I've had Giant sitting next to the DVD player from months now and just have not made a point to watch it. I don't know exactly why, but it seems whenever I'm about to finally give it a go, something else catches my attention. This article was great, though, and has made up my mind that I need to make it a point to finally see this one.

  14. This is the first movie I remember seeing thanks to my grandmother, and decades later it remains my favorite. It was lovely to read your post, thank you.

  15. For me, GIANT is a first-rate film, until the story jumps into the 1950s. It's good that the issue of discrimination is examined, but I thought it was done so in a heavy-handed manner. And the make-up that the actors wore for this period - aging makeup for Hudson, Taylor and Dean; along with the heavy pancake makeup for those portraying Latino - seemed a bit tacky.

    The best part of GIANT - at least for me - was the film's 1930s setting. The actors were at their best; especially Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Mercedes McCambridge. James Dean wasn't bad, but I've seen better performances from him.

  16. One should always remember when looking at older films - times were different then - Sal Mineo was lucky to get the role in this movie even if he did have to play a Latino -- that's just how things were done then - he was under contract to Warner Brothers and it was a Warner movie - other than big stars it was still rare to see actors go to other studios to make films - smaller roles almost always went to the studio contract players - I was born in the 30s and the make-up by the 50s for 'ethnic' roles looked really good by this point in lots of the movies compared to what it had been -


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