Saturday, March 26, 2011


Liz Taylor on the set of Giant, 1955

I don’t know if this is true of not, but when I was a kid, my father told me he was an extra in the opening scenes of Giant -- Rock Hudson as Jordan Benedict gazes out a train window to the green hills of Maryland where a merry band of fox hunters are galloping, following their hounds and jumping fences. The fox hunters follow Rock all the way to the station where he steps out to set eyes on Elizabeth Taylor for the first time. She's riding the black stallion he’s come all the way from Texas to purchase and he can't decide who's more beautiful, the horse or Liz, so he takes both of them home. My father is one of those fox hunters who brave the coops and fields and ditches along side the train. Every time I watch the movie I fail to find him in the small crowd, but I like to believe he’s galloping with Miss Taylor, exchanging glances.

Giant is Elizabeth Taylor’s other horse movie, she doesn’t ride throughout, and the horse of the story is only a brief chapter in this Texan Odyssey, but Liz proves her ability once again to not only sit properly in a saddle, but to actually ride. It’s a rare thing to see an actress who can really ride. It makes me wish for just  a moment that she made more horse movies, but Burton took her away from all that and got her to reach deep down inside and find some really serious stuff, the stuff of Oscars.

I watched Giant for the first time in college, because I had a James Dean obsession. I could have cared less about Elizabeth Taylor back then, it was James Dean that I wanted to get every possible view of. And I got more than I bargained for. I had never seen anything like Giant -- everything about it was, well, gigantic -- the sky, the land, that house Rock brings Liz to, and Rock Hudson appears to be eight feet tall. All I knew of Texas back then was TV's Dallas -- but Giant made me realize that long before there was J.R., there was Jet Rink -- the dumbest, sweetest, meanest, saddest horseless cowboy in the West. 

Jet Rink has no use for horses or cows. He's got nobody and nobody wants him. He likes machinery and women and he’s strangely chosen by the fates to change the way of life in Texas forever. Circumstances swirl like a dust devil; Rock brings Liz to Reata along with the beautiful black stallion on the train and their arrival is the blessing and the curse that will haunt Jet forever. The stallion kills Rock's hard-as-nails sister Luz, played by Mercedes McCambridge, who is Jet’s only friend in the world, and she wills him a little piece of land smack in the middle of Reata. This gives Jet the foothold on life he always needed, and the oil begins to flow. But his wealth is nothing without Liz Taylor's Leslie -- she’s the other part of his puzzle that he can never have; all the gods will allow him is one lousy afternoon with her over a bad cup of dusty tea.

Liz and her black stallion are the harbingers of so many changes, one can barely stand it. Jet’s oil fields close in on the big house of Reata. Where there used to be open prairie with nothing but beef cattle and tumble weed, oil wells pop up like a weird crop, dark as the stuff they pull out of the ground. And Liz turns out to be nothing but a East Coast Democratic Hippie. That’s right, she want’s to stay up late in the parlor with the men to talk about politics and God almighty -- she treats the Mexicans as though they were human beings! She not only speaks to them, but she touches them, and goes to their side of town where she treats their sick babies and demands they get things like food, education, and health care. So it’s not surprising when she gives birth to Jordy, who grows up to be a young clean cut Dennis Hopper. He wants nothing to do with carrying on the Benedict tradition. His third birthday is a hair raising embarrassment to Rock -- presented with a beautiful pinto pony decked out in the finest western tack, the boy screams and cries when he’s put in the saddle. Nope, this kid is his mother’s boy, a pale goodie two-shoes who wants to go to Harvard and return to Texas as a doctor who marries, are you ready? Yop, he marries a Mexican girl.

See? Liz wreaks havoc wherever she goes. Old Texas is shattered and rages against the change, like a bronc fighting with all it’s might against the spurs of a cowboy determined to break him.

Down down down they go, riding the backs of the silver and red JeTexas tanker trucks, all of them drowning in oil and money and shame. But good prevails, the good hippie wisdom of Liz pulls back the clouds as Jet lies in the ruins of his banquet tables, a hurricane blowing through the tall windows of his empire. Rock finally becomes the hero Liz had been training him to be ever since she first saw him from atop her black stallion -- she converts the man to a freedom fighter, and you sit there in the dark, thinking, wow, that was three hours not wasted.

RIP Miss Taylor -- you were a wonder of the world.

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