Film November 2023

A Mighty Cast for a Giant Movie

Released in 1956, Giant boasted a cast of heavy hitters. Elizabeth Taylor (as Leslie Benedict), James Dean (Jett Rink), and Rock Hudson (Bick Benedict) starred in the Warner Bros. western drama that is a sprawling epic covering the life of a Texas cattle rancher, his family, and the woman he falls in love with. Filmed in the small town of Marfa, Texas, the production of Giant marked the beginning of Elizabeth’s formative friendships with Rock Hudson and James Dean, though through a tragic turn of events, she would outlive them both. 

The ambitious project directed by George Stevens brought together some of Hollywood’s finest. With a budget of $5 million, it was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. Stevens went above and beyond during filming, capturing so much footage that it took a full year to edit down to its lengthy running time of over three hours. On a conceptual level, Giant is a serious study of issues not often addressed in films of the 1950s: equality of women, class warfare, the dangers of rampant materialism, the corrupting influences of power and wealth, the perils of racial prejudice, and the scourge of healthcare inequity.

The film marked important passages in the careers and lives of its three young stars, all of whom were tackling their most demanding roles as characters who age 25 years over the course of the film. Elizabeth, then 23, naturally became the heart and soul of the film as she remained thoroughly in character for a long and challenging role told from her viewpoint. Despite the robust schedule and unpredictable weather, Elizabeth found time to forge close bonds with her cast members — late-night chocolate martinis may or may not have been invented during this shoot. 

Elizabeth became very close with her co-stars, but no two friendships are the same. Some evenings, Elizabeth would stay up late with James Dean as he vented about his frustrations with his life as an actor, restrictions from being part of the Hollywood machinery, and past sexual traumas, creating a deep space for them to inhabit. Her friendship with Rock Hudson leaned toward the lighter end of the spectrum. After a night of drinking that ended at 3:00 a.m., he and Elizabeth managed to make a 5:30 a.m. call time to shoot a wedding scene with, fortunately for them, no dialogue. They were so focused on not being hungover that it came as quite a surprise when people on set started to cry, convinced of their supposed looks of adoration for each other.

As filming progressed, tragedy struck. James Dean was traveling to a sports car racing competition when he was involved in a crash that cost him his life. According to Elizabeth and Hudson, the day after Dean's death was announced, Stevens required a distraught and inconsolable Taylor to complete reaction shots for a scene she had played with Dean. She would never forgive him. Elizabeth and Rock Hudson remained close friends until 1985, when Hudson tragically died of AIDS.

At this point in Elizabeth’s career, she was beginning to define herself and become her own person outside of her husband, a redeeming quality she shared with Leslie Benedict. Her portrayal of Leslie remains one of her most memorable and critically acclaimed roles, but there was more at play behind the scenes that goes beyond talent. The friendships with James Dean and Rock Hudson that emerged from late nights and releasing it all, translated onto the big screen for unforgettable performances by three stars who lifted each other’s spirits in the best ways they knew how.