Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by William Inge

Until recently Natalie Wood was just a name to me. I had heard of her and of her tragic death, but I had not seen any of her films, or fully understood who she was and why she was so well known. Well a few weeks ago I saw my first Natalie Wood film, Rebel Without a Cause, which incidentally was also my first James Dean film as well. Now I have unearthed my second Natalie Wood film, and incidentally, Warren Beatty’s first film ever, Splendor in the Grass. The title comes from a beautiful William Wordsworth poem, and what follows is an ode to the sentiments carried within its verse.

Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are two young kids in 1920s Kansas who are madly in love with each other. They picture happy days of marriage and children one day in their future together, but  these are crazy times. Gone, supposedly, are the days of chivalry and the two are expected to act a certain way. Bud is a man and society tells him he should get what he wants, from women too. And society, even Deanie’s mother, tells her that her desires are for the benefit of men, who are the ones that really feel like that, not good, proper ladies. Essentially the clash between the personal feelings of Bud and Deanie about love and sex and the feelings of what society tells them splits the two apart prematurely, driving Deanie mad.

The film is such an interesting conversation on the subject matter of everything surrounding the idea of love. It condemns the free wheeling spirit of Bud’s sister Ginny, and subdues the natural passions of Deanie and Bud to the point that it kills their genuine love for one another. Chivalry is dead and women are no longer put up on a pedestal in the 1920s, but the same could be said about the late 1950s, early 1960s too I’m sure. Plus, like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) before it, the film is certainly in the category of those commenting on the growing counter culture movement in America. The youth were getting fed up with how things are going and the ways their elders tell them to live their lives. The juggling act of pleasing them and her own passions, dreams and desires pushes Deanie to the edge and it is handled so brilliantly by director Elia Kazan, but even more so by Natalie Wood.

This is only the second film of hers I have seen, but it is also the second Oscar nominated performance by Natalie Wood that I have seen, and let me tell you, she shines in the role of Deanie in Splendor in the Grass. Her range of emotion and ability to connect with her co-stars and the audience at the same time is remarkable. And plus she is a beautiful face, albeit awfully skinny, but very pretty. Warren Beatty is also good in his first big screen role as Bud, but really this is Wood’s film. The one main complaint I would have with the film, however, would have to be Pat Hingle as Bud’s father Ace. I get his character and what he is all about, but the performance by Hingle is far too over the top outrageous. He is too loud and rambunctious in the midst of a film that is so quiet and heartbreaking.

There is so much going on in this film to attach to and reflect on. Not all of it hits perfectly, but it doesn’t need to when you have a Natalie Wood to captivate you. At the same time, the connection to the William Wordsworth poem is a brilliant stroke. The title of the film obviously comes from that poem, and it is true, the film does not live up to the beauty of Wordsworth’s rhyme, but that would have been a difficult task. What the film does do is create a feeling of setting, of love, of brokenness, which culminates in a great ending.

What though the radiance which was once so brightBe now for ever taken from my sight,Though nothing can bring back the hourOf splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;We will grieve not, rather findStrength in what remains behind…- William Wordsworth


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