Friday, August 22

Good 60s Films: Splendor in the Grass

1961 Drama
From Warner Bros.
Directed by Elia Kazan

Natalie Wood
Warren Beatty
Pat Hingle
Audrey Christie
Barbara Loden
Zohra Lampert
Fred Stewart
Gary Lockwood
Sandy Dennis
Joanna Roos
Jan Norris
Martine Bartlett

I have already established that when I was a youngster, like any good teen (and some not so good), I was fond of teenage love stories.  Don't make me remind you of a couple of them.  Well, here is one of the best... from any decade.  It all came together for Splendor in the Grass in so many ways... an accomplished director, a famed playwright tickling the typewriter keys with his first (and only) original screenplay, a world-renowned actress doing her best acting job to date and a sexy, handsome, unknown leading man who wouldn't be unknown for long.

Playing Deanie Loomis was a dream-come-true for Natalie Wood.  She longed for the role and knew she had the good fortune of it being made by her home studio.  On the downside, she and the brass weren't seeing eye-to-eye.  Wood had a few pictures of late that for one reason or another didn't pan out the way she wanted.  She needed a hit and she thought she could bring just the perfect touch to the role.

Deanie is a fragile, misguided girl with a controlling mother and a loose grip on reality.  All that was a home run for Wood, something she could play in her sleep.  Splendor deals with two 1928 Kansas high school kids in love.  She is the prettiest girl in school and he is the handsomest boy.   Deanie is from the poor side of town with a perhaps well-meaning but overbearing mother and a kind but weak father.  Bud is from the richest family in town.  

Did I mention they are virgins and very much want to change that?  Well, I better get that in now.  He especially can hardly stand it.  He gets the sweats and a goodly share of angst.  It's killing him.  Technically she wants to go all the way with him, too, but she hears her mother's voice in her head each time it gets close.  And unfortunately it's like she says no no no as she bites him on the neck.  That's not good.

Then comes the heartache and breakdown she suffers when the relationship doesn't work out.  That was something Wood knew a bit about because of her aborted relationship with James Dean, her leading man in Rebel Without a Cause.  Yes, she could bring her best game ever to Splendor

As the story unfolds Deanie and Bud are hot for one another but she wants to keep it at petting while he wants to make love.  A wonderful scene comes about in the Loomis living room where they're struggling with their desires while trying to keep an eye out for her parents.  He forces her to her knees and makes her say how much she cares for him, a show of awkward machismo.

Their relationship begins to unravel when Bud's loud-mouthed father tells him to go find a girl with whom he can score with no strings. Bud does just that, with the girl who sits in front of Deanie in class. It seems the whole school knows what happened, including Deanie, who is humiliated when she has to interpret a Woodsworth poem in the class that echoes her broken relationship.  The event brings about the onset of Deanie's emotional trauma.

The scene was Wood at her best and likely contributed to her Oscar nomination.  Kazan was immensely pleased even though it involved Wood dunking her head under water, an event that greatly upset her.  Here it is... take a look.

A bit later, there would be another water scene, above a waterfall, in which Deanie would swim through dark waters in an attempt to drown herself.  She was brave to do the scene considering she was desperately afraid of drowning. 

In the film's bittersweet final scene, a wistful Deanie, looking radiant in a white dress with a white, large-brimmed hat, released from a long mental hospital stay, wants to see Bud again so that she can move on with her life.  Gone now is the promise Bud's father had planned for him... a college education at Yale and then a job in the family oil firm.  Bud lives on a brokendown ranch with a pregnant wife and a young child.  He's not really happy and sums up the sadness when he says to her... things work out awful funny sometimes.

As she leaves with her two girlfriends and says goodbye to Bud, probably for the last time, there is a voiceover as she recalls the lines from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode on Intimations of Immortality she painfully had to interpret that long-ago day in class:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, glory in the flower:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

And a marvelous film comes to an end.

On the top rung of Wood's excitement ladder was working with Elia Kazan, a director she greatly admired and for whom she wanted to work for some time.  Although Kazan had referred to her as a has-been child star, she was at the top of his Deanie list, which also included Jane Fonda and Lee Remick.

Kazan, while ostracized at one point in the early fifties for naming names during the Hollywood witch hunts, was also a highly-respected director.  Hopefully he was as proud of his work on this film as he was for Gentleman's Agreement, Viva Zapata, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden.

William Inge, who would win an Oscar for his screenplay, was a successful playwright who gave a bit of challenge for a spell to his contemporary Tennessee Williams.  He wrote Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  He was from Kansas, he spent a career writing about depressed women and life in Kansas.  He was himself depressed, an alcoholic and a heavily-closeted gay man.  He wrote a not-so-successful play, A Loss of Roses, which featured Warren Beatty.  It is quite likely that Inge was in love with Beatty and it's possible that Beatty led him on to some extent, not physically, but in a way that might have, in fact, led to his casting in his first movie.

Never much of an actor, Beatty usually specialized in sulking and mumbling but had a knack for choosing roles that were quite right for him.  He was certainly a luminous presence, eye candy and quite intense but also difficult and immature, none of which ever much changed.  Splendor was the great debut.  He really was quite right as Bud Stamper.

Contrary to popular belief not only did Wood and Beatty not begin their love affair during the filming, they couldn't much stand one another, particularly, I suspect, her to him.  One would never have known that by viewing the finished product.  I suspect she found him to be a snotty upstart and he found her to be a less-than-wondrous actress.

It would be oh-so-wrong to neglect to mention three captivating supporting performances.  Technically, there's not a false note among the entire cast and Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie and Barbara Loden helped make this fine film what it was.

Hingle, as Bud's father, is about as obnoxious as a father could be... mouthy, terrible listener, controlling, determined his son will live the kind of life the father wants him to.  Christie, as Deanie's equally controlling mother was softer than Bud's father but just as damaging.  She demonizes sex to the point that it stunts her loving daughter's growth.  She, too, wants her daughter to live the kind of life the mother thinks she should.  Neither of these parents connects to the real world or their children.  Furthermore, when Bud and Deanie seek out the advice of clergymen, doctors and teachers, they get mere platitudes.

The last member of this trio is Barbara Loden in a firecracker of a part as Bud's wild sister, Ginny.  Ginny has issues with alcohol, sex and her domineering father.  Her few scenes give a real jolt to the film.  She was discovered by Kazan and would become his protégé and later his wife.

This movie stands as one of my partner's very favorites.  It was close to making my 50 Favorite Films but ultimately didn't make the cut.  I opted to include This Property Is Condemned, which I believe showcases the best Natalie Wood performance ever.  This would be number two.

I may have missed a couple of her childhood movies but I have seen every one she made as an adult.  I thought she was beautiful, an enormously expressive actress, real, passionate, vulnerable.  I have not written much about her because it pains me to do so.  One day I will write more about her, I hope.  Much more.  One day.

Second Leading Men


  1. Loved, loved. loved Nat. You might remember in one of your famous quizes in your den, she was the non-living celeb I would most like to meet.

  2. I do remember that time in my den. Do you remember that both Jason and I were crazy about her, too? She was the quintessential movie star of my teenage and young adult years. Yummy, yummy, yummy.