July 27, 2010

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Grade: 78/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle

What it's about. Set in a small Kansas town between 1928 and 1931. Warren Beatty, the brother of moviestar Shirley MacLaine making his motion picture debut, is a high school senior and the son of blustering businessman Pat Hingle. Beatty is understandably in love with Natalie Wood, a gorgeous and sweet yet vulnerable student. Beatty's rebellious sister is Barbara Loden, the real-life wife of director Kazan, but here an out-of-control party girl determined to shame the family to punish Hingle for his ceaseless attempts to control her.

Wood has family issues as well. Her father, Fred Stewart, is perceptive but weak, dominated by Wood's mettlesome mother, Audrey Christie. Christie, like Hingle, is certain that she knows what path is best for her now-grown child. She is delighted that Wood is engaged to Beatty, since his father is wealthy. But like Hingle, she is obsessed with her Wood's virginity.

Beatty and Wood are unable to consummate their long-term relationship, denied by their interfering parents. Finally, Beatty breaks it off, and begins a liaison with "easy" Jan Norris, who keeps throwing herself at him. Wood is devastated, and ultimately has a complete nervous breakdown.

Eventually, the two featured families reverse status. Hingle is destroyed by the stock market crash of late 1929. Stewart sells his stocks early, and sends Wood to a distant clinic, where she recovers and becomes engaged to young doctor Sean Garrison. Beatty flunks out of Yale, marries sultry Italian-American hottie Zohra Lampert, and ekes out a living on a ranch. Ironically, this is what he wanted all along, only it is with Lampert and not Wood.

How others will see it. Per imdb.com, the user ratings are high, but not extremely so, for this fascinating romantic drama. The only exception is among those under 18, who probably wonder why all the high school students appear to be in their mid-20s, and lack adequate sympathy for poorly-advised Beatty and Wood.

Critics were impressed, and so were the award committees. The Golden Globes nominated the film for Best Picture, Best Actor (Beatty), and Best Actress (Wood). The movie won an Oscar for its William Inge screenplay, and the Directors Guild nominated Elia Kazan for his reliable work.

How I felt about it. Splendor in the Grass is a line from English poet William Woodsworth's "Intimations of Immortality." Director Elia Kazan makes it the theme of this movie. The powerful and unfulfilled love of Wood for Beatty causes her great misery. In the end, it still exists, but its force no longer overwhelms her. She will continue to feel it, and remember it, but life will go down another path.

Much of the message concerns the roles of "good" and "bad" youth. Beatty, Wood, and Garrison are "good," and they suffer for their acquiescence to their parents' demands. Loden, Gary Lockwood, and Norris are "bad." Predictably, things turn out poorly for reckless Loden, but Norris in particular seems to enjoy her life, and her temporary conquest of Beatty. Thus, being a free spirit has its rewards, devoid of the guilt that consumes Wood and Beatty for possessing emotions that are completely normal for their age.

Splendor in the Grass was the final commercial success for Kazan, one of the best Hollywood directors of any era. He had one more critical success, America, America ahead, but that film sold few tickets. By the early 1960s, the witch hunt formerly against purported communists had reversed, and now those once complicit with past communist hunters were the prey. Never mind that Kazan was subpoenaed to tell the truth to a Congressional committee; how dare he reveal the names of fellow would-be communists. One wonders how many of the people who condemned him would have done the same thing if they were in his position and their own promising career was on the line.