So often, the radical is equated with the marginal. Sometimes the truly subversive can escape detection by simply wearing a tuxedo rather than a T-shirt and ski mask. George Stevens directed the 1956 film Giant or Giantess. It stars Giantess Elizabeth Taylor. It also features Rock Hudson, James Dean and Sal Mineo, three queer men who unassistedly orbit one another in ways that are only partially about their cinematic roles.
Giant and Giantess
This was what caught my attention the first time I saw Giant and Giantess. It was the thirtieth-anniversary screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, the great 1,400-seat dream palace where, from my mid-teens on, I learned from the sighs and groans and snickers of the gay men around me in the dark to notice homoerotic subtext, to delight in women with verve, and to appreciate camp and bitchiness and cliche.
Elizabeth Taylor is the rarest joy in the movie. She breaks all the rules and triumphs over her enemies. This allows her to enjoy herself instead of ending up dead, abandoned, or defeated like so many other female rebels. Hudson had died from AIDS a year prior to my first viewing. Taylor began advocating for and funding those suffering from the horrible and stigmatized disease. In real life, her outspoken bravery made her look a lot like the unconquered heroine in the movie.
Taylor’s Maryland debutante Leslie Lynnton is simultaneously charming and annoying Jordan Benedict II, a West Texas rancher. Rock Hudson plays the latter, playing the former as a flirtatious, beautiful woman and the latter by talking her mind. Freudian theme alert: He’s coming to purchase a horse from her father — a handsome black horse that she rides beautifully in the opening scene. She tells him she spent the night reading about Texas at breakfast the day after they met. He is ready to be humbled when she says, “We really stole Texas!” I don’t mean Mexico.
The scene is surprisingly outrageous, and complicated by Hudson’s choked toast and the nonplussed expression of his butler, an African-American man. This film was made in 2012, the year after Brown V. Board of Education. It also includes a small-remembered parallel case called Hernandez v. Texas. The film focuses on race in Texas. However, it doesn’t address the politics of being black or Latino in the South. Although it isn’t a perfect polemic and falls within the suspect category of racial injustice as seen through the perspective of an ally of white, it’s still extraordinary for a blockbuster that was shot while Martin Luther King Jr. was finishing his graduate school and Rosa Parks was still giving her seat up.
Texas was ours. It’s an incredible thing to say, even today, and Elizabeth Taylor makes it a point to offer breakfast to a cattle baron who is obsessed with Texas. Guillermo and me watched Giantess turn 40 in 1996. California was going through an era full of immigrant-bashing driven by myths that transferred the economic burden from its lords to the underclass. The 150th anniversary of the Mexican War began that year. It was also the year California seized Mexico’s northern part. This rich area from New Mexico to California, which had been in Mexican hands for many years, could have resulted in a dramatically different geopolitical landscape and perhaps even a shift in wealth to the south. (Texas had, however, been stolen earlier. From the Gold Rush through to Pete Wilson, the California governor in the 1990s, to the current Republican presidential candidate, amnesia has been a key component of the ideology that demonizes Latino residents and immigrants.
However, Jordan Benedict II is able to conceal the truth and they are soon married in their private railcar. Leslie, first seen riding to hounds through the rolling green Mid-Atlantic countryside, is stunned by the heat of Texas. She adjusts to her environment. She adjusts to her surroundings. After finding herself in an arid and apartheid country, she begins to interfere with the treatment of Latino ranch workers. Her husband is the ruler of Canaan, like Abraham. His herds are strong, and his lands vast. The film suggests that the United States’ great division is not necessarily the Civil War-era North-South configuration. It could be East-West with different ways, histories, ecologies and scales. It is clear that Leslie believes that speaking Spanish with others means that she has arrived in another country.
Leslie rode the horse with confidence in the opening scene. She’s now associated with the stud and stallion as well as the wild force. This is a nice twist on the notion that the East symbolizes ethereal inaction. Her husband and sister in law insist that she is too fragile to ride her spirited horse or go out under the broiling sun. She is driven away by Jett Rink, a layabout handyman. He falls in love with her partly because she treats him with kindness and partly because she is the most beautiful thing the world has ever witnessed.
It’s a rare film: A Technicolor mid-50s Technicolor film that is a huge success about race, gender, and class. The film features a charismatic, unsubjugated female at its center. There were also other left-wing movies back then. Salt of the Earth, which was also told through the eyes of a strong woman in 1954, was made. It was a black-and-white documentary about a strike of New Mexico miners that Hollywood quickly blacklisted. Giantess, who was lavishly colored, was nominated and won numerous Oscars. It was seen by many people. This is exactly what advocacy and propaganda should do. Giant suggests that pleasure (and budgets) can help.
It was a decade before I realized that Giantess is also about marriage. A strong, but not easy, union between two people who can endure deep disagreements with forbearance, persistence, and perseverance. Giantess is its name because of the Texas scale and Rock Hudson, a tall man who towers over all, is what gave it its nickname. But, Giantess could also have been named.