The 1961 film Splendor in the Grass is a picture that inspires complicated feelings. Directed by Elia Kazan, it doesn’t have the clarity or control of his well-known masterpieces from the 50s such as On the Waterfront, but despite its occasional messy qualities, I find it impossible to forget.
On the surface, it’s a story of thwarted romantic love—a fragile, proper and pretty Kansas girl named Wilma Dean Loomis (nicknamed “Deanie”), played by Natalie Wood, is in love with the high school football star Bud Stamper, played by Warren Beatty. But their parents are critical of the pair, for different reasons. Deanie’s hysterically controlling mother (an alarming performance by Audrey Christie) is obsessed with her daughter’s moral purity, while Bud’s father, played by Pat Hingle, doesn’t want anything to interfere with his plans for his son to go to a prestigious college and become a huge success in the world.
Perhaps the biggest thing the film has going for it is the chemistry of the two leads. The 22-year-old Natalie Wood was already a big star—she did West Side Story the same year—but this is, I think, the best work of her career, ranging from confused vulnerability to passion and self-destructive frenzy, her performance turns Deanie into a many-sided and believable character. And at 23, this was Warren Beatty’s first film, an astounding debut for an unknown actor. Bud is gentle and considerate, but oppressed by his inexperience and the conflicting messages he gets from his parents and society. His guarded side takes strength in the light of a subplot involving his older sister, played by Barbara Loden, whose open rebellion against parents and society results in her being ostracized as a loose woman. Wood and Beatty are very strong in their scenes together—there’s a palpable feeling of intimacy that is unusual in a Hollywood film.
The script is by the eminent playwright William Inge, who specialized in depicting the crippling, narrow-minded atmosphere of small-town American life. It won him an Academy Award for best original screenplay. The film tends to go overboard with its overwrought emotional melodrama—especially in the scenes with Pat Hingle as Bud’s father—the family dysfunction on display is so over-the-top sometimes that it’s cringe-inducing.
But what’s really interesting here is the film’s true theme and subject—sexual repression and the destructive denial of young people’s sexual feelings by the parents and other authority figures. The film tries to talk around its subject—it has to, because you weren’t supposed to make this the central idea of a film in 1961—but it makes thing clear enough for anyone really paying attention. And it’s this theme, in my opinion, that is the primary source of the movie’s heartbreaking effect. Two good-hearted teenagers are driven almost crazy by the lack of information, outright lies and coded taboos blocking and demonizing their normal sexual desires. The combination of this unusual theme (unusual for Hollywood at that time, I should say) with Kazan’s richly expressive style and the performances of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, make Splendor in the Grass a powerful experience almost in spite of itself. It’s available on DVD.