Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Splendor in the Grass (1961) *** ½
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: William Inge.
Starring: Natalie Wood (Wilma Dean Loomis), Warren Beatty (Bud Stamper), Pat Hingle (Ace Stamper), Audrey Christie (Mrs. Loomis), Barbara Loden (Ginny Stamper), Zohra Lampert (Angelina), Fred Stewart (Del Loomis), Joanna Roos (Mrs. Stamper), John McGovern (Doc Smiley), Jan Norris (Juanita Howard), Martine Bartlett (Miss Metcalf), Gary Lockwood (Allen 'Toots' Tuttle), Sandy Dennis (Kay), Crystal Field (Hazel), Marla Adams (June), Lynn Loring (Carolyn).

I like a good teenage melodrama, and Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass is a very good one indeed. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of a current teen melodrama making tons of the money at the box office – of course I’m think of the “Twilight Saga”. Both films are about good looking teenagers trying their best not to give into their sexual urges. The difference is that Twilight is merely skin deep – you never feel those teenage hormones waiting on the inside ready to explode, whereas in Splendor in the Grass that is all you feel. These kids are in heat, and it will drive them insane.

The movie takes place in Kansas right before the outbreak of the Great Depression. Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) is the most popular girl in school – because she is dating Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), captain of the football team and the son of the wealthiest man in town, Ace (Pat Hingle). Right from the film’s opening scene, we know they are fighting their urges – he pressures her, but she eventually gets him to stop. Bud is frustrated, but he loves Wilma – he plans on marrying her. His father is pressuring him to go off to college, to follow him into the business world, but all Bud wants to do is run one of his dad’s old ranches and marry Wilma. Ace thinks this would be tantamount to throwing his life away. For her part, Wilma seems addicted to Bud – she wants him badly, but her overbearing mother (Audrey Christie) never leaves her alone – talking about “nice” girls, and what they do and do not do – and more than that, how it makes one “not nice” to even want to do it. There are cautionary tales all around them – Bud’s sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) who has become known as the town tramp, and a girl in high school with them, Juanita (Jan Norris) who is on her way to taking over the crown. Bud tries – he really does – to deal with his urges, but everywhere he turns for advice, he is given bad advice. His father tells him that there are girls out there who he can use to meet those urges, without spoiling a nice girl like Wilma, whom he may want to marry. Things get complicated, Bud leaves Wilma, and soon, she is spiraling out of control.

The film was directed by Elia Kazan, who spent much of his career advancing sexuality onscreen well before many other directors were doing it. The carnal lust felt in A Streetcar Named Desire is palpable, the strange, creepy attraction Karl Malden feels for his child bride in Baby Doll, and her own way of manipulating men with her seemingly naïve sexuality, was scandalous in 1956. In 1961, these things were still not talked about on screen very often. Watching the film now, it may seem dated, and yet it in many ways it seems relevant. Teenagers still struggle with these questions – in a very different way of course – and the ultimate message of the movie remains relevant – that teenagers are going to have sex, or at least want to have sex, no matter what adults do – so it is better to give them a healthy attitude towards it, rather than try to repress it.

Would Wilma Dean have gone crazy had her mother not given her famous speech about “A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children”? Probably not. Wilma is convinced that her sexual desire is a sign that she is already insane, and she freaks out. Bud is taught that sex is dirty – that you don’t actually want to do it with the person you love, and spoil them. Ginny exposes the hypocrisy on the whole situation in her memorable breakdown, when none of the men at a party will dance with her – and she yells “You only come near me in the dark!”

The film works tremendously well as a steamy, soap opera. The sexual chemistry between Beatty and Wood is remarkable, and the viewer grows just as frustrated as they do that they don’t just give into their urges. Had they done that, things probably would have turned out much better for both of them. The movie does end on a more positive note – one that gives hope to the future that perhaps both of these young people will be okay. But the healthiest thing that both of them can do, is get away from their parents. It isn’t until they do, that they start to grow up.

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