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A 'Giant' effort to keep a legacy alive

Release of the film's DVD version marks just the beginning of a James Dean marketing blitz.

June 09, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

MARFA, Texas — Filmed here during the summer of 1955, the epic movie "Giant" was forged from the hubris of Hollywood and the sturdy bravado of Texas. The results were winning.

"Giant" was Warner Bros.' top-grossing film for more than 20 years, and the arrival of its cast -- Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean -- remains the defining moment in this west Texas town of 2,100 people.

"I've probably seen it 20 times. I can do all the parts," said Sherry Estes, a 60-year-old jewelry designer from New Mexico, who came here for the premiere of the "Giant" DVD, which will be released nationwide this week.

The digital version cost Warner Bros. about $1 million to make, but it's an investment in the mythology of "Giant" as part of a larger strategy to aggressively market Dean's image in 2005, the 50th anniversary of his death. All three major motion pictures Dean appeared in during his short career were Warner Bros. properties, and the studio is determined to repackage "Giant," "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" under his winning image.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
"Giant" -- An article in Monday's Calendar on the release of the DVD of "Giant" said that actor James Dean died racing his Porsche Spyder. Most accounts of his death report that he was killed in a highway accident on his way to a race in Salinas, Calif. The story also referred to an Interstate 90 in Texas. The road is a U.S. highway.

"Giant" was shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Warner Bros. is producing a feature-length documentary, "James Dean; Forever Young," which will be released at film festivals and distributed nationwide during the spring of 2005.

"We reinvent James Dean every four to five years," said Todd Uglow, corporate counsel for CMG Worldwide, which controls and markets the actor's image and works closely with Warner Bros.

And all that's just fine with "Giant" aficionados. On Saturday, about 150 of them, in addition to county officials and two actors from the movie, attended a screening-under-the-stars of the DVD in the courtyard of the Paisano Hotel here. The event raised $6,000 to build a new public library. There were cowboy hats, eight free cases of beer and someone even had a scrapbook from the summer of '55.

It's still a big deal in Marfa.

Even as this little town in the middle of nowhere (200 miles southeast of El Paso) is working to change its future -- to transform itself from a ranching community into an artists' colony -- its reputation will always will be linked with "Giant."

Larger-than-life role

James Dean died racing his Spyder Porsche just days after he shot his final scenes in "Giant," and an actor named Nick Adams had to be called in to do voice-overs during post-production. Even though he had only been on screen in "Giant" for 33 minutes, Dean was posthumously nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance as Jett Rink, a roughneck on the Reata ranch who finds oil in his small annex of the land.

Rink's massive oil operation makes him far richer than Reata's owners, the Benedicts (played by Taylor and Hudson), but he is unable to lose his own rigid sense of class and pedigree. He feels isolated, living among gulping oil rigs.

"The only thing that wasn't accurate was the derricks," quipped Estes. "The oil derricks were too close together."

For Pam Crawford, vice president of a James Dean fan club, the romance of Dean and of "Giant" far surpasses annoying details about accuracy. Crawford, a pale woman with hair the color of dried cornstalks, drove from Little Rock, Ark., to attend the DVD premiere.

On Saturday morning she put on one of her black James Dean T-shirts and made her way to the massive cattle ranch about 20 miles from the center of town where builders from "Giant" had once erected a three-story plaster facade of Reata, complete with painted shutters and a wraparound porch.

She pulled off Interstate 90 and bumped along a dirt driveway for three miles until she found her sacred spot of ranchland covered in scorched grass. Antelope and a giant jack rabbit with black-tipped ears ran by. Crawford got out of her car, smiled, turned on her camera and aimed at a partially demolished collection of rotten and broken support beams.

"It's just beautiful. Do you see Reata?" she asked. "It is just beautiful."

It is precisely her breathlessness that Warner Bros. executives are pursuing as they peddle a new version of "Giant" to continue promoting Dean. But film historians insist that apart from the care and feeding of Dean as a retro sex symbol, "Giant" is still one of the best cinematic glimpses of this region.

"Texas riding high and riding handsome was 'Giant,' " said Don Graham, author of several books on the image of Texans in film.

With an unprecedented budget of $5 million and a running time of more than three hours, "Giant" was a lush melodrama that spanned 30 years. But apart from sweeping entertainment, the movie's handling of women's rights and racism was notable. There are many women in the Southwest who can deliver a quote or two from Taylor's character, Leslie. When Leslie, who comes from Maryland aristocracy, first meets Rock Hudson's character, Bick Benedict, she asks him why Texas "stole" Mexico. It's a provocative question that can still stop many an Anglo Texan in their tracks.

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