In May of 1955, Hollywood descended upon scorching Marfa, Tex., assembled the facade for a grand mansion to be called Reata, and painted the town green. ”It was dry that year,” explains Clay Evans, then 19, who recalls that to achieve the look of a healthy lawn on his family’s land, the movie people took brushes to the brush, paying Evans’ daddy $20,000 for the privilege.
The movie, of course, was George Stevens’ oil epic Giant, and the movie people included Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Five weeks later, they left Marfa a lonelier place — and the inspiration for Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean — but Reata, ancestral home of the fictitious Benedict clan and the film’s central image, remains. After 41 summers — and several hurricanes — its skeleton stands on Evans’ 47,000-acre ranch, attracting only the occasional pilgrim or wayward steer.
Giant also lives on — and has reopened in selected cities — though it too spent two generations decaying. ”Time does terrible things to films,” says George Stevens Jr., who helped found the American Film Institute in 1967. So he revived an expensive Technicolor dye-transfer process and harnessed digital soundtrack mixing to refurbish his father’s three-hour-plus opus, which for 22 years — until 1978’s Superman — stood as Warner Bros.’ top grosser.
James Dean’s last film (he died eight days after wrapping), Giant still generates heat for its survivors. ”We were so silly on location. There was a competition,” remembers Carroll Baker, who was 24 and played Dean’s love interest. ”Jimmy decided he was going to take Liz away from Rock. There was no sex involved; [Dean] was just, like, ‘Ha, ha, ha! I may have third billing, but I’ll show you who gets the most attention from the leading lady!”’ James Dean…behaving like a rebel? Some legends always endure.