James Dean’s final, and in my opinion, greatest performance casts him as the antagonist Jett Rink to Rock Hudson’s Jordan Benedict. Giant sought to redefine the Texas landscape and in terms of subject matter was a very forward thinking film. Not only does it address the wealth and power associated with the oil industry, it also deals with interracial relationships and interracial children in an extremely positive way.
Told over the course of over two decades, Giant follows Jordan Benedict as he marries Leslie (Taylor) and slowly loses his oil empire to family ranch hand Jett Rink. When the patriarch of the Benedict family dies, Rink only asks for one small patch of land as repayment for his years of loyal service. For years he works to drill it, with Jordan and his family finding his efforts humorous but ultimately pathetic. Finally, Jordan finds what he’s been looking for and puts all his effort into usurping the Benedict’s place in the upper crust in Texas.
Dean’s role role is very much a supporting one in this film, his first real secondary role. Hudson and Taylor’s relationship and the growth of their family is the primary plot concern. Once Jett discovers the oil he comes into much greater focus in the overall story. Dean’s portrayal of Jett is masterful; he’s an inarticulate man who understands working the ranch and being an oil rig worker best. This earthier character type plays foil to Jordan Benedict’s refined Texas aristocrat. Both men fit the Western archetype, with Jett being the rougher around the edges type.
James Dean’s finest moments occur in the scene where he zooms up the Benedict house to gloat about his discovery of oil and his grand finale, a drunken fifty-something man who wealth has done nothing to heal his anger and hatred. The first sequence showcases the bombastic skills of Dean; while his motivations are extremely petty you can’t help but feel ebullient with him. The latter scene is my favorite piece of acting by Dean and Daniel Day-Lewis’ final moments in There Will Be Blood owe everything to this performance. Having struck up a relationship with Benedict’s barely legal daughter, Jett has revealed himself a lecherous old man trying to numb the hollowness inside him by consuming disgusting amounts of whiskey. In the conference room at an oilmen’s convention, he stumbles about mumbling things under his breath, knocking over tables and has a final, violent confrontation with Jordan Benedict.
James Dean was never to act again. Before his final two films were released, Dean was taking a drive in his Porsche Spyder with a friend, received a speeding ticket, and two hours later collided with another car while speeding again. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. I remember being angry after I saw Giant that there were no more films with this actor. That couldn’t be right, he was so good and there were so many things he could have done.
I like this commercial produced by a life insurance company that theorizes what it would have been like if he had lived, and think its a good way to cap this essay series: