THERE IS only one false note in James Dean's still-startling performance in George Stevens' grand old classic "Giant." It sounds, tragically, at the end, when Dean is making the speech that climaxes the whole movie. Unfortunately, Dean's Porsche Spyder was wrecked in that fatal and fateful car crash before he got around to looping the dialogue, so Nick Adams -- an indifferent but more professional actor of the time -- had to simulate Dean's voice and do the speech.
George Stevens -- assuredly one of the great Hollywood directors -- thought he had no choice. A lot of the drama of the movie hinged on the contents of that speech. They had to fake it. Adams did his best to match his sound to Dean's actions but it was like asking Kenny G. to overdub John Coltrane -- or Michael J. Fox to overdub Brando.
"Giant" is one of the great American classics in the old style inherited from loose, baggy and monstrous Victorian novels. When some people grouse that they don't make movies like they used to, this is the kind of movie they're talking about. It's multi-generational, old-fashioned storytelling. But whenever it threatens to become top-heavy, Dean's amazing performance comes along to undermine (these days, they'd say "deconstruct") everything that's stuffy and fustian about it. The manneristic mumbling of Method madness among actors of the time can be easily satirized or dismissed, but when all the japery is done, Dean is still incredible in "Giant."
The great film classics are not only always worth seeing, they have a bit of a tendency to make most other movies look wan and sickly. Of all that have been lavishly restored and put back into circulation recently, the big story, unquestionably, is Hitchcock's "Vertigo" in 70mm. Unfortunately, because the only theaters equipped to show it are chain theaters in the malls, it's unlikely to get here as the movie season gets more competitive.
A newly restored and refurbished print of "Giant" is the reason it has come back, and while some of the colors -- especially the sumptuous Maryland greens of the early scenes as Rock Hudson courts Liz Taylor in horse country -- are suitably rich, many of the scenes look to me as if they were transferred from videotape. The print I saw was hardly a specimen example of film restoration to be preserved under glass.
It's no matter really because the film is still wonderful enough to withstand any sort of exhibition. It's based on an Edna Ferber best-seller few people would read now if the film hadn't been made. It's an overstuffed couch of a saga -- unwieldy but comfy -- with rich cattle baron Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and white-trash oilman Jett Rink (Dean) battling for the heart and soul of Texas while Liz Taylor and assorted splendid character actors (from Chill Wills to a very young Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo) throw distractions into the fray.
What keeps it so fresh, though, besides Dean, are the grace notes in Stevens' style -- the dialogue in places you don't expect it to be, the sudden odd, almost documentary details (the hair that stays out of place when Hudson removes his cowboy hat, the kid playing ball next to a church as the first war casualty is buried), the big landscapes and bigger closeups and big dramatic notions (Taylor, in total shadow, tells a blazingly lighted Hudson she wants to separate).
Most of all what keeps it fresh is the fact that -- like John Ford's harrowing and magnificent "The Searchers" -- it lurches righteously but nobly into the heart of American racism. It isn't Rink's needy, weaselly slickness that the story is really about or Bick Benedict's stolid, oafish adjustment to petro-capitalism, it's prejudice against "wetbacks." Listen to Pat Buchanan sometime and tell me how old-fashioned "Giant" is.
Even though the movie belongs to Dean, finally, Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor were surprisingly good at a time when neither was considered much. Poor Hudson now seems consigned to a reputation as Hollywood's most famous resident of the celebrity closet and its earliest major AIDS casualty, but he was often as good as some very good directors asked him to be, and this is one of those times. Taylor isn't as good but then at this stage she was so hauntingly beautiful, she almost didn't have to be.
"Big stuff is old stuff," one of his kids tells Big Daddy Bick when she wants to leave the ranch. Not necessarily in movies. It's just big in a different way. "Giant" is simultaneously big stuff and old stuff. Very good stuff though.
Rating:**** 1/2 Grand American classic from 1956, starring James Dean, Eliz abeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Directed by George Stevens. No rating, opening today in the Amherst Theater.