Spoilers ahead for Splendor in the Grass (1961, Dir. Elia Kazan)
When we think of high school stories, we tend to think about the outcasts and the misfits, the football games and the carefree attitudes of youth. The set-ups for conflict are usually problems that looking back on them aren’t really as significant as you remember. But one film that shows the difficulties of coming-of-age in a raw and poignant manner is Splendor in the Grass. Released in 1961, Splendor in the Grass was positioned to be a huge game-changer for its leads Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Wood was a child star who was transitioning to adult roles at the time. Six years earlier, she broke through with Rebel Without a Cause but hit a slump with a string of box-office duds like Bombers B-51, Kings Go Forth, and the forgetful All the Fine Young Cannibals (her only theatrical release with husband Robert Wagner). Beatty was a newcomer who found brief success on Broadway, this was to be his feature film debut. The stakes were high for both of them.
Splendor in the Grass is set in Kansas in 1928. The film centers around the relationship between rich, football star Bud Stamper and his girlfriend the sensitive and not-so-well to do Deanie Loomis. Bud and Deanie are hopelessly and in love. Deanie tells Bud she will do anything for him but she’s a good girl and when Bud’s desires intensify, she’s driven to madness. Let me just say, if you have not seen Splendor in the Grass it is intense. (Just look at the film’s poster!) Its central theme of sexual repression may seem outdated but remember this film is suposed to be set in 1928. I also believe if you look at Deanie’s character, you can substitute abstinence with something else and the film can be just as effective such as trying to change yourself for the one you love.
What makes this film so effective is the chemistry between Wood and Beatty. While many believe the two had an affair that contributed to the demise of Wood’s marriage to Robert Wagner and Beatty’s engagement to Joan Collins, the two actually clashed off-screen and would later date in real life for two years, according to Wood and Beatty biographers and Wood’s sister, Lana. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty are so beautiful in this film, how two people can be that beautiful should be illegal. The film opens up with the two kissing in Bud’s car near a waterfall setting the tone in motion. Their kiss seems innocent at first but Bud pushes Deanie to go further and when she declines he gets out of the car and slams the door. Deanie looks confused and Bud tells her he’ll take her home. Unlike kissing is most films today, the kissing here isn’t gratuitous, they actually serve as devices to move the story along. Splendor in the Grass is notable for featuring the first French kiss in American cinema. The film was made in 1961.
After school one day, Bud and Deanie go to her home where her parents are noticeably absent. Deanie and Bud begin to kiss and then move into another room. It’s here that the intensity of their passion picks up with a disturbing moment. Bud forcibly grabs her and presses her down to his knees and says, ‘at my feet, slave.’ Deanie shocked begins to tell Bud to stop. He instead tells her to tell him she loves him, that she can’t live without him and she’d be everything he ever ask her to be. Deanie repeats his words fearfully and then falls to floor in silence. She’s vulnerable and in her mind is prepared to give into his sexual demands in the later dialogue when she asks if he’ll pick her up for the dance later that night and his reply is, “I can think of things I’d rather do.” To which she says that she’ll be ready.
The above kiss is not at all romantic. It’s messy, upsetting, and disturbing but it’s an important kiss. It changes everything about the film. It’s also scary in its realism as it depicts that outdated belief that men dominate relationships and women should fulfill their needs. Romantic or not, a kiss on film makes you feel something. In that moment, you feel the desperation, passion, and confusion of our two leads. And that’s what Splendor in the Grass does. These two take you on a journey into their forbidden love.
When Bud returns home, he tells his father that he plans to marry Deanie after high school and enroll in an agricultural college. But his father ignores him and tells him he should wait to marry. Bud clenches his teeth and you can sense the sexual frustration he’s experiencing. Bud’s father then proceeds to give Bud a speech about two kinds of girls: the nice girls and the loose girls and that Bud needs to find a loose girl to ‘sole his wild oats’ so to speak and go on with his father’s plans for him to go to Yale. Bud agrees. It’s a very sad moment in the film which Beatty plays effectively. You feel his dilemma and how it’s tearing him apart inside.
The second act of the film is its tragedy. Had our two lovers been free to make their decisions on their terms, who knows what the outcome could have been. But to give into the demands of their parents and society, they were doomed from the beginning. Unlike most teenage films, the decisions made by our two leads alter the course of their lives.
Natalie Wood is electric in the second half. She was nominated for an Oscar for this role but lost to Sophia Loren (who gives an equally heartbreaking performance in Two Women which you must see if you haven’t) and in my opinion this is her finest work. Beatty has a strong debut as Bud. At times, he’s just there but his quiet demeanor lets the other characters sing and its in his reactions that we truly understand who Bud is.
During the publicity for this film is when Wood and Beatty embarked on a torrid romance. For two years, their every move was tabloid fodder. The two were very public with their relationship attending such high profile events as the Oscars, Canne Film Festival, and the premieres of several films including Natalie’s star turn in West Side Story. The two eventually moved on from one another but remained friends. Warren wanted Natalie to play the role of Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde. It’s been reported that Warren even attended Natalie’s wedding to second husband Richard Gregson. There’s also a story from a biography on Natalie Wood called Natasha that says the two went on a double date and Natalie translated Russian to English for Warren’s date, a famous Russian ballerina. Proof that Hollywood is definitely a different place than real life.