I’ve discussed Natalie Wood once before on this blog in my post about West Side Story. Natalie was given the role of Maria based on the film I want to discuss today, Splendor in the Grass. Even more than West Side Story, Natalie Wood’s performance in this film affected me profoundly.
I first saw this film in high school. So, of course, it struck a cord with me since I was in that stage where obsessing over a guy was eh, extremely common. Crushes felt like life or death situations. Thus, I immediately felt a kinship to Natalie Wood’s Deannie, a girl who felt stuck between following her heart and making her parents proud. She wanted to be the good girl her parents believed her to be, but also would do anything to keep Bud Stamper interested.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, here’s my short synopsis. Splendor in the Grass, made in 1961, follows Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and Deannie Loomis (Natalie Wood) in 1920s Kansas. They’re teenagers in love for the first time. But, they have one overwhelming obstacle: sex. While both of them are ready and willing to give that part of themselves to the other, they’re both fed poor advice by their parents and so, end up breaking up. Deannie doesn’t handle it well. In fact, she has a nervous breakdown. And of course, drama ensues.
Here are a few reasons Splendor in the Grass is a classic film staple:
Without Natalie Wood, this film would be only moderately interesting. She was 23 when she starred in this film, but was already a seasoned actress. She had been in the business since she was five years old. Still, Splendor in the Grass was really her foray into adult roles. And though she was young, her talent was clear. She had something inside her. Her vulnerabilities and emotions were out for everyone to see and that’s especially true in this film. Her range as an actress was clear – she was interested in characters and wanted desperately to be taken seriously as an actress.
Beatty made his feature film debut in this film. William Inge, the writer, had cast him in a play a few years earlier, and so when Splendor in the Grass came along, he’s who Inge first thought of. Beatty and Wood apparently had an affair on the project, which Elia Kazan (the director) only encouraged, believing it would only make their love scenes better. Beatty was given this chance and it catapulted him to stardom overnight. There’s no doubt that he was very attractive, but like Wood, he had a certain X factor which made him a star. His intensity with his father and with Wood in the film is palpable.
The Supporting Cast
Kazan and Inge knew how important the supporting players were and chose well, casting Pat Hingle as Bud’s father and Audrey Christie as Deannie’s mother. He also cast Barbara Loden as Bud’s wild sister, Ginny. They all brought gusto to their roles and Barbara Loden actually ended up becoming Mrs. Kazan a few years later. Loden also went on to write and direct Wanda in 1970, a raw film which was completely from the female point of view!
The screenplay was written by the famous playwright and author, William Inge. His other film credits include Bus Stop, Picnic, and All Fall Down. Inge and Kazan worked together on a play and wanted to find another project to collaborate on. Inge told Kazan about an idea he had based on people he knew growing up in Kansas. Inge first wrote the book and then adapted it into a screenplay.
As a story, the film reminds me of a musical from a few years back: Spring Awakening. While Spring Awakening took place in the 1890’s, both stories were essentially about the same thing – society presenting misinformation and prudishness regarding sex. The conflict in Splendor in the Grass comes regarding a young couple’s inability to be together without sex being a factor.
Deannie’s mother tells her sex is not something a woman does because she wants to. A “good girl” doesn’t have those feelings, her mother tells her. Conversely, Bud’s father understands his son’s sexual urges and tells him to find solace in another kind of a girl. When Bud dumps Deannie, she goes mad, unable to eat, sleep, or find meaning in her life.
Splendor in the Grass’s score was composed by David Amram who’s also known for his score for The Manchurian Candidate. His score is sweeping, melancholy, and somehow reflective of the 1920’s.
Boris Kaufman, who also shot On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men shot the film beautifully, with rich color and fascinating close ups.
This is the biggy. Elia Kazan, known for many other films including On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, knew how to get the best performances out of his actors. Natalie Wood, who was famously afraid of water, had apprehension even about shooting the bathtub scene. Kazan told her that he would focus the camera on Christie and just get reaction shots. This got Wood upset and thus, she shot the scene in one take and it may be her strongest scene in anything she ever did.
Kazan said “It’s not my favorite of my films, but the last reel is my favorite last reel, at once the saddest and the happiest…What I like about this ending is its bittersweet ambivalence, full of what Bill had learned from his own life; that you have to accept limited happiness, because all happiness is limited, and that to expect perfection is the most neurotic thing of all; you must live with the sadness as well as with the joy” (Kazan, TCM Article).
Those Random things…
Trivia tidbit – Natalie Wood and husband Robert Wagner named their boat the Splendour after the film. It was that boat that Natalie fell off in 1981, drowning.
I came across this video of Robert Redford discussing Natalie Wood and just thought it was too good not to share. It gives you a view into who Natalie was as a person, separate from her on-screen persona.
I love this film because it’s honest. It’s about idealistic love and the idea that life doesn’t work out the way you think it will. It’s also commenting on a time period where sex was very much a taboo thing. At that time, there was no sex education. As such, their was a stigma with sex before marriage. There were no open lines of communication.
The last scene in the film, there’s a lot that’s left unsaid. But, it doesn’t need to be. Natalie Wood, with just a glance, could express everything she was feeling. And thus, her performance makes this film what it is: a true classic.
Plus, it’s just fun to watch the crazy parents give their awful advice which ends up messing everything up!
Vintage trailer below: