September 30, 2016: QA with George Stevens Jr. – the son of the director – and Carroll Baker before the film, moderated by historian and writer Foster Hirsch
Foster Hirsch: We are very lucky to have with us the son of the director, George Stevens, who was on the set in Texas, and he tells us a wonderful story that not only was George Stevens was one of the great Hollywood directors, but a wonderful father. George Stevens, Jr.
[Applause, as George Stevens Jr. went up to the stage.]
As time goes on, and these are 60-year-old films, there are fewer and fewer stars of the film who are around to speak to us about the film, but we’re lucky tonight because one of the principal stars – the only principal player who is still with us – is here to remember her work in Giant. She’s one of the Hollywood Greats. Baby Doll herself. Please welcome Carroll Baker.
[Thunderous ovation for her. I was in tears. You might as well start strong, you know what I mean? Her work has been important to me since I first discovered it in middle school.]
Carroll Baker in “Giant”
Foster Hirsch: Now this film is 3 hours and 21 minutes. No intermission. And you won’t want one. Every minute of it is riveting. Why did your father decide to present the film without an intermission? That was his choice, wasn’t it?
George Stevens, Jr.: Yes. The film was actually designed with an intermission. By coincidence, in that year, 1956, there had really been no major film since Gone With the Wind that ran 3 hours or more. In the late summer of 1956, there were 3 pictures ready for release. Giant, running 3 hours and just about 20 minutes. The Ten Commandments.
FH: That was four hours.
GS: And Around the World in 80 Days. And they were all planned with intermissions, with the idea that it would be more like a theatre experience. Giant opened with an intermission, and quickly – with all three films – it was decided they were better running without intermissions. Audiences didn’t seem to like it.
George Stevens Jr. and Carroll Baker, Friday night at the Film Forum
FH: Nowadays, people don’t sit still. But these guys are going to sit still for 3 hours and 20 minutes. They’re not going to move because they’re going to be riveted! We’re here to talk about the film but also about James Dean. Carroll, I know you’ve been asked a lot about what it was like working with James Dean. You have one or two glorious scenes with him, one of them, frankly, you steal from him. What was it like in that table scene working with James Dean?
Carroll Baker: First I have to tell you, whenever I think of James Dean, it always reminds me of George Stevens, Jr. We were in the projection room. It was just about the end of the film. It was Elizabeth and Rock, and several other actors, and of course our director George Stevens. And I was so fond of George Jr. We became very very good friends. He was in the Air Force then, and he was flying around, and he was so cute because he would always fly back to Hollywood to come on the set to say Hello to everybody. At any rate, the lights were off, while we’re watching the day’s daily rushes – the lights suddenly go up. George Stevens stands up and all the blood had drained from his face. I knew it was something tragic. And the first thing I thought of was my dear friend George Jr., who was flying, and that something happened to him. And George said, “Jimmy Dean has just died in a car accident.” That’s how we found out.
FH: When you were working with him – you were both Method-trained. The other actors, most of them weren’t. Did you feel you and James Dean were speaking a common language?
CB: Yes, in a way. He was very inventive, like on the porch scene which you will see. He had learned to use the rope, and he was able to twirl the rope, which was a bit of an accomplishment. So he added things like that to the film. One day Rock and Elizabeth came to me and they said, “Listen. You’re the only one who can handle James Dean. You give it to him!”
FH: There was some competition between the Hollywood actors and the New York Method actors?
CB: There was. Yeah, there was. [Long contemplative pause, she appeared to be either lost in thought, or NOT saying a library-full of observations, and everyone started laughing.]
FH: I love the subtext. George, I know over the years, your father was frank about having problems with James Dean in the making of the film, always aware that he was a brilliant actor and giving an extraordinary performance, but he was difficult, is it fair to say? Or troubled?
GS: Jimmy marched to his own drum. My father took a lot of time making a film. He liked a lot of camera angles. They got a little behind schedule because Jimmy didn’t like waiting around on the set. They had a little difficulty from time to time. For the scene at the end, Jimmy came to my father and said, “I can’t figure this out.” And Dad and Jimmy went on a sound stage for two nights, and Dad being about the age of the older man, and having been around the theatre a lot as a boy, he was able to work with Jimmy, and Jimmy got comfortable with it, or much more comfortable. Jimmy was enormously talented. The tragedy of his death – which became sensationalized, but if you just take it in human terms – he was a wonderful actor but I think he had his eye on being a director. He was watching and learning. That was the beginning of the time when more actors were thinking about getting the camera. We lost a lot when we lost him. He was 24 years old.
FH: Did he resist direction from your father?
GS: Not really, but he was very inventive, as Carroll said. He’d bring a lot to the scene. Sometimes – having sat in the editing room – you’d see that he’d come and he’d have this piece of business, and he’d have that piece of business – and it was so interesting, but in the editing, you were able to weed it out and keep the story moving. But he was gifted, I think.
Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean
FH: Were you doing any improvisations in your scenes with him?
CB: George wasn’t encouraging of improvisation.
FH: He wanted you to deliver the dialogue as written.
CB: I think Jimmy was a great actor and I think he would have gone on to be a great actor, and he was a friend of mine, and despite all of his difficulties, I did like him very much and I was sad when he passed away, but I have to tell you that he had just become a star, and he was a little brat. [Huge laugh from audience.] And George was wonderful with him. He was very patient. But really, Jimmy would try anybody’s patience. He just didn’t show up on the set! You didn’t do that! You didn’t do that! You didn’t say, “You kept me waiting! Me! The new star! You kept me waiting! And now I’m not going to show up when YOU want me to be there!” You don’t do that.
James Dean and George Stevens
FH: What’s fascinating about the film, which takes place over many years, is that the actors age. There’s some controversy about the makeup, but what’s really interesting is that Carroll Baker plays Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter. Carroll Baker was one year older than Elizabeth Taylor.
GS: [to Carroll] He ratted you out.
CB: Oh, thank you, Foster! Thank you! I needed that!
GS: [to the audience] How many people are seeing Giant for the first time?
FH: And how many returnees do we have? It’s about half and half. A lot of young people here seeing it for the first time, which is great.
GS: There’s a wonderful article about Giant in last month Harper’s magazine, and I think it might be an interesting read for people – both who’ve seen it before and those who haven’t. The writer [Rebecca Solnit] calls it a revolutionary film. She had seen it on its 30th, 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries. To look at this film and realize that in 1956 – I don’t think the word ‘feminism’ was yet used – and Elizabeth Taylor plays a uniquely feminist role in an interesting and humane way. Giant was one of the first major films about race, in this case Mexican-Americans in Texas. As this writer pointed out, Giant was made when Martin Luther King was in graduate school. And, rounding that out, it was not some arch-serious polemic. It was the most successful picture that Warner Brothers had ever made, and it was very popular. But my father cared about the human condition.
Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor
FH: It’s a 1956 film that is politically correct in today’s terms. There are very few 60-year-old films that can claim that. Carroll, you worked with I think three of the greatest actor’s directors in film history. Carroll worked with Elia Kazan in Baby Doll, William Wyler in The Big Country, and with George Stevens in Giant.
CB: [chiming in] John Ford! John Ford!
FH: I wouldn’t put him in the same category. [Audience reaction. Foster hastened to add a clarification: ]Not in terms of acting! What did those three – and John Ford – what did they have in common? They’re all great directors. You worked with four of the best. Three of the four were known as great actor’s directors. [There was much laughter during this small speech.] What did they have in common?
CB: Nobody who writes about films is going to like this answer. They never told an actor how to act. They cast you because they thought that you were right for the part, that you could do it. Only the bad directors tell you how to read a line, how to define your character. The good ones let you do your job.
Elia Kazan directing Carroll Baker and Karl Malden”Baby Doll”
[People started clapping and cheering, myself included. Many people who write about film write with such CONFIDENCE about how such-and-such a director brought OUT this or that performance from an actor, or “gave” the performance to the actor. It’s such bullshit, sorry. But the myth persists, from people who have never acted or participated in an artistic collaboration. Clearly there were many others there who felt the same way.]
GS: Very well said, Carroll. I was around my father on a number of pictures, Shane and Giant and a little bit on Place in the Sun and Diary of Anne Frank. What he thought his job was was to create an atmosphere where the actor was comfortable and do her best work.
CB: I think that’s one of the reasons why he did so many takes. He wanted the actor to just relax into it, and after doing it a number of times, come up with something a little more original.
FH: But he wouldn’t tell you what he was looking for in the scene?
CB: Absolutely not.
FH: But you did take after take after take. Did you like that approach?
CB: I did.
FH: It didn’t work for everyone.
GS: A slight distinction between Dad and his dear friend and fellow officer in WWII William Wyler is that Wyler would do as many as 70 takes. My father was more about multiple camera angles because he always felt he could fix a scene if it wasn’t working if he had these different angles. He’d do fewer takes, but many more set-ups.
FH: This film took one year in the editing process. He shot an enormous amount of film and then edited it down. Carroll, what was your impression when you first saw the film? You were at the famous Roxy opening when people thought James Dean was going to be there in person?
CB: It was the first opening that I went to! It was a great big event at the Roxy Theater in New York. They used to think New York was as important as Hollywood. They don’t today, but they did then. Jimmy had hit a note in young people. They identified with his character, they identified with this rebel character, they needed him. The rumor went out that he was still alive, that his death was just a publicity stunt, and that he was going to be there at the opening. It’s not what I expected for my first opening. I expected it to be glamorous, you walked down a red carpet, people took your photograph. Instead of that, the police couldn’t handle the crowd. All these kids were rushing in. They pushed everybody. Elizabeth was just starting with Mike Todd. And he was the first one, by the way, who bought her diamonds. She had a present from him, $10,000 diamond earrings – It would be much more expensive today, but in those days it was very expensive! And she was pushed by the crowd, and one of the earrings fell on the ground. You can’t imagine the pandemonium.
FH: That was your first opening.
CB: That was my first opening.
FH: I want to talk about Rock Hudson, who came from a different tradition than Carroll Baker or James Dean. I know there are some differences of opinion about his work as a film actor. I think he became a terrific film actor and I think he’s fabulous in this film.
CB: Yeah, I think he was just perfect. Perfect.
FH: He was perfect for film. He never overstates. I think it’s wonderful that your father cast him? Do you know the circumstances? A lot of people wanted to play that part.
GS: My father had an awful lot of confidence in himself in terms of working with actors. He said that he had talked about William Holden and Grace Kelly and others for the lead roles – but he felt that it was better to have young people, so that you believe the romance of the young people, rather than having older people playing young. So he chose that. Rock gave himself over to it. I really admire what he did. I think it’s a wonderfully strong part and he’s strong in it.
FH: Never pushing. Jimmy Dean does a lot of acting. It’s glorious but it’s a lot of acting. You never catch Rock Hudson doing any acting.
GS: You remind me what Rock told me about what my father said to him. They’d be doing a scene and this was early in the shooting. And my father would say to Rock, “We’ve got a long way to go with this story.” It kept Rock from trying to do too much.
Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor
CB: When we were in Marfa, Texas, it was a little bit glum in the evenings. First of all, it was a one-street town then. I understand it’s grown up a lot now. Everybody had to eat in the hotel dining room. There weren’t enough accommodations for people. And of course, Rock and Elizabeth and Jimmy all had their own houses. But for the rest of us, after they took all the rooms in the hotel, they had to find places for the rest of us. I lived in an apartment with Jane Withers, Mercedes McCambridge, and Fran Bennett … and there was one bathroom. And we had to be up very early in the morning. The living was a little bit glum. However, Rock was one of the most fun people I have ever met, and he had a party every single night. There was nothing else to do in Marfa! He invited everybody. He didn’t mind what kind of a small part you were playing. He was so funny. He was such a great guy. He threw those parties every night and it was wonderful.
FH: And that humanity comes through–
CB: Oh, and Jimmy never went!
FH: The rumors were that they were not good friends, their acting styles were so different, their temperaments were different.
GS: I spent a weekend with Rock and Jimmy and they got along fine.
CB: [sounding surprised] Did they?
FH: I admire your father to no end, but I always question his avoidance of Cinemascope for Giant. He wanted it to be tall but not wide, when the other epics were all in Cinemascope. I love Cinemascope, and I think Giant should have been Cinemascope, but what was his rationale for having it tall?
GS: He thought that that wide Cinemascope screen was good for taking graduation pictures and not much else. He felt that the story was in the faces of the actors and in the landscape, and if you have that wide Cinemascope screen, it’s harder to get the closeups. He later did a masterful job in The Diary of Anne Frank, but he liked the aspiration of height. I know we want to start the film, but I just thought I would share three insights.
Robert Towne recently talked about this: there’s a wedding scene in Giant about a third of the way through. I’m not giving much away that Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor get married, but you don’t see their wedding in the film. You don’t see the wedding of the principals but you see the two of them at another wedding later in the film. And Robert Towne – the great screenwriter – thinks that the wedding scene in this picture is a masterpiece. The power of visualization.
There are two other masterful scenes: when James Dean paces off his land. Just to see how the music and visuals and an idea can make a scene powerful.
And then also the return of the Mexican boy when he comes home from the war: pure cinema.
FH: Famously, James Dean was very nervous about playing an older man in the drunk scene at the end, which he never felt he “got.” And he said, “I’m not getting this scene. But Carroll Baker’s reaction is so perfect – use the scene of her reaction.”
CB: That was a great compliment. He said, “I’m having some difficulty getting through the message of this scene. But keep it on her face because it says everything.” It’s so touching.
FH: It’s very touching. It’s very true. 3 hours and 20 minutes of glorious cinema. There are some naysayers who say this film doesn’t deserve its reputation. They’re wrong.
Giant is playing through the week at Film Forum.