5.20.2018 Author and educator Don Graham takes a walk on the Giant side of Texas
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, Don, and how would you describe those days?
DON GRAHAM: I was born on a cotton farm in Collin County, near Lucas, a small community consisting of two churches, two stores, a cotton gin, and a school. My first three years of education were in that schoolhouse in Lucas, with eight grades in one room and high school in another. I learned a lot about Texas history, grammar, and perhaps less so, penmanship. Altogether, that world was as different from modern-day Collin County as one can imagine. When I was eight, my family moved to McKinney, and three or four years later, to Carrollton, where I attended high school. So my roots were both rural and suburban.
When did you first pursue being a writer, and what was the outcome?
I loved to read from very early on, and in college as an English major I wrote a lot of papers and later in grad school longer critical essays that I began to publish in scholarly journals. My dissertation on the writer Frank Norris was published, but I had grown tired of academic writing and in 1983 I wrote a very different kind of book, Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas, in a personal voice.
What do you consider to be your first big break as an author?
Although by the late ’80s I had published a number of books, my 1989 biography, No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, published by Viking, marked a new, more national phase than small press or university press books about Westerns or Texas literature.
The Dallas Morning News has called you “Our premier scholar and critic on Texas literature, films and pop culture.” For years you have been a contributing editor at Texas Monthly and have written much about the Texas persona through art and culture. But perhaps, your most ambitious effort has been your latest book. Can you tell our readers about Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film?
My new book is a narrative account of the personalities and talents that went into the success of this epic movie. Frankly, I find some film books boring because of their extensive coverage of script changes and the like, so I decided to concentrate on the drama of the private lives and the on-screen performances of both major and minor figures.
Several reviewers have pronounced the book “novelistic,” an adjective that I certainly embrace. Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean are endlessly fascinating, and to George Stevens, the director who pushed and pulled the whole thing together, goes the prize, and indeed he won his second Oscar for Giant.
What inspired you to write this particular book at this particular time?
I have long admired the film and during the past few years, I have found that millennials in my Life and Literature of the Southwest course respond very positively to this movie that many of them have never heard of, so that was one factor.
Plus, I know there are many older Texans as well as older Americans throughout the U.S. who remember Giant very fondly and I just thought the story of this amazing film—and its enduring relevance—would be an interesting project, and boy, was it! I loved writing about the major stars, the director, the author of the novel, indeed everybody connected with the film from Hollywood to Marfa, Texas.
I wanted a book that moves the way the film does, that would tell an increasingly dramatic story along the way. I myself wonder why I didn’t write this book earlier. In 1986 my wife Betsy Berry and I spent three nights on the Ryan Ranch outside of Marfa, owned by Clay Evans, one of the sons of Worth Evans, from whom Stevens leased the land on which to film lots of outdoor scenes. It was the thirtieth anniversary and Marfa was having a weekend celebration. Then, in 1996, I appeared as a “talking head” in Kirby Warnock’s fine documentary, Return to Giant. I also suspect that semesters spent in France and Australia during the Nineties were a factor in not taking up the challenge of getting the story down on paper. But believe it or not, I’m glad I waited till now. Information about the film kept rolling in during the three to four years of research and writing that would result in the book.
Why do you suppose Texans remain so intrigued with Giant?
I think Texans are so intrigued with the film because it tells them, in Technicolor images, the story in part of how Texas came to be and how the state needed to change some of its traditional culture, most notably discrimination against racial minorities. Giant melds together two great sagas—Texas ranching culture, with nods toward the King Ranch—and oil—with a fictional portrait of the most famous wildcatter of them all, Glenn McCarthy and his Shamrock Hotel. But I do think there is another dimension to Giant’s continuing popularity, and that is the story of a twenty-five-year marriage and the story of a family.
Giant gets at the truth of family life, and it’s very interesting to realize that not one of the Benedicts’ three children does what their parents want them to do. Instead the family proceeds through the years constantly negotiating and renegotiating the possible futures of the children while the children, grown into adults, go their independent ways. Liz Taylor is the beautiful wife and mother who holds things together and in the process educates her sometimes benighted husband about women and race. It’s a great family saga.
How old were you when you first saw Giant? Where were you, and what stayed with you from that viewing?
I was sixteen when I saw it for the first time. This was at the grand Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. Many things stayed with me from that movie. I was not, for example, a James Dean fan until I saw Giant. And in that great scene where he is bequeathed a piece of land on which he will eventually strike oil and become rich, I was so struck by the sliding motion he makes with his hand when he says adios to Bick Benedict and declines the offer of money in favor of land, that I later adopted that bit and have used it numerous times in the years since. I also love it when he says, “I’m just gonna gamble along with Madama, just gamble along.” My wife and I both use this expression all the time.
What were some of the biggest surprises you discovered as you were researching your Giant book?
There were many surprises. First of all, I didn’t know that much about James Dean and had no idea of the amount of memoirs and biographies written about that volatile figure. Dean proved to be fascinating to write about—and in that way of his, he continues to arouse strong reactions long after his death. I was also surprised—and moved—to find out how much George Stevens’s experiences in WWII affected his life and art. Stevens filmed very disturbing footage at Dachau and two of his documentaries were introduced in evidence in the Nuremberg trials. Edna Ferber’s life and career turned out to be very interesting as well. Indeed, all the longer and shorter biographical takes in the book held my attention all the way through. I was also surprised by the amount of artistic responses to the film, including other films, novels, poems, plays, short stories, installations, even a musical.
You are the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, so I'm going to ask you the question that I ask everyone who teaches and writes. Can writing be taught? Why or why not?
I don’t know if writing can be taught, but it can certainly be improved by following certain guidelines, such as thinking of a possible audience, finding a voice, and having something that you think is important to say. My general impression is that the best guide for good writing is to read classic twentieth-century American novels.
Nonfiction is awfully important too: I mean narrative nonfiction. Stay away from jargon-ridden academic prose. The frustrating thing about teaching writing is the persistence of many students in making the same mistakes over and over. Also nobody seems to know anything about traditional grammar rules or how to diagram sentences or indeed what a sentence is. I tell students that if they stop using however, their writing will automatically improve. And yet they almost willfully, it seems, ignore lots of good advice that I give them. When I was a student, I wanted to eliminate mistakes in my writing; many of my students seem to have no interest in that at all. Finally, yes, some students improve their writing under good instruction. Inspiration alone, though, ain’t gonna cut it.
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Praise for Don Graham's GIANT
“A noted authority on all things Texas, Graham turns his attention to film with this authoritative tale of 'Big Texas Oil' and the epic movie Giant . . . A delightful work of film/cultural history for movie fans.” ―Kirkus Reviews
"Don Graham digs into Giant like a wildcatter drilling for oil...He provides colorful tales with minimal Texas exaggeration and a plethora of facts and anecdotes...a book that will satisfy fans of the film." ―Philadelphia Enquirer
“Lively . . . deeply researched and efficiently paced.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Don Graham is a masterful storyteller . . . Just as Giant the movie was the talk of the town back in 1956, I know Don’s lively narrative will be the talk of the town today. He captures West Texas and the big screen stars perfectly.” ―Laura Bush
“Don Graham, long a keen student of Texas literature, has given us a brilliant study of a classic American film.” ―Larry McMurtry, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Last Kind Words Saloon
“Don Graham goes far behind the scenes to deftly capture the fragile egos and sexual misadventures of the legendary cast, the extraordinary determination of Stevens, and the reaction of Texans who warily embraced a cinematic self-portrait they found both troubling and irresistible.” ―Glenn Frankel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Searchers and High Noon
“Graham breathes new life into the gripping story behind one of mid-century America’s great epics, retold with invaluable insight drawn from the wells of cultural history, Hollywood dish and Texan lore.” ―Noah Isenberg, Los Angeles Times bestselling author of We’ll Always Have Casablanca
“Some films are so vital they become part of American history. Giant is one of them. Don Graham shows us how a volatile mix of some of Hollywood’s biggest, most troubled, personalities ― Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, the doomed James Dean ― came together under the brilliant direction of George Stevens to create an epic that rivals Texas in size, scope,and sheer impact. With insight and wit, Graham gives us a highly entertaining saga of how movies are made and why they become iconic.” ―Nancy Schoenberger, author of the critically acclaimed Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood and the upcoming Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero
“Giant is a page-turning tale of giant talents and egos toiling in a remote Texas location with the legendary director George Stevens to create a classic in American film. Especially Dean is poignantly portrayed as a tortured young man whose career and life flamed out much too soon. Essential reading for every fan of the silver screen.”―Tom Clavin, New York Times bestselling author of Dodge City
“You’ve seen the movie, of course? If not, you’ll rush to get the Blu-ray when you’re a few pages into Don Graham’s riveting book that tells the story of Giant from start to finish. That story involves half of Hollywood, and not only the stars ― Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean ― but those other superstars considered for the roles: Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Grace Kelly, Clark Gable, and many others. This brilliant chronicle will grab you like a thriller.” ―Sam Staggs, author of All About All About Eve
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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.