2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Stefen Styrsky on Elia Kazan’s ‘Splendor in the Grass’

I have to admit that I didn’t expect Splendor in the Grass to capture my imagination and sympathy the way it did. Sure, it’s hard not to respond to a story of one’s first, perhaps only, great love, but the capsule description — a turbulent affair of two young people beset by outside forces (Romeo and Juliet, anyone?) — hardly promised groundbreaking material. But the film — written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge, directed by Hollywood giant Elia Kazan and acted by some of Hollywood’s best performers — feels new and fresh 50 years after its release, and achingly alive with love, sorrow and hope.

Splendor in the Grass begins with a girl and a boy kissing passionately in the front seat of a car. In the background, water spills over the lip of a reservoir and crashes onto rocks; about the pair, trees and flowers grow in riotous bloom. The young couple is Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deannie (Natalie Wood). He urges her for more, but Deannie — though smitten and obviously willing — holds back. A moment later, Bud storms off in frustration.

That water and those rocks get as much time in the scene as Deannie and Bud. It’s telling: nature escaping man-made confines. Kazan’s film shows a series of such moments, each with similar results. Except, in the case of people knocking against imposed limits, the end is stress agony, and even death, not merely an overtopped dam.

And are there limits! Immediately upon returning home that night (an ominous intertitle reading: 1928 Southeast Kansas), Bud and Deannie are proffered all sorts of advice from well-meaning if blinkered parents, not only about their love affair, but what is expected of them for the foreseeable future.

“Women don’t enjoy it the way men do,” Deannie’s mother tells her, going on to say a “nice” girl never feels sexual desire. Mrs. Loomis’ description of marriage is like the old joke about lying back and thinking of England. Played by Audrey Christie, Mrs. Loomis is most certainly a woman of her time, always ready with a helping of food and a side dish of platitude. She has two concerns: her daughter’s virginity and the booming stock her husband owns in the local oil-drilling company. At first, Mrs. Loomis seems simple of means and disposition, but Christie plays her with a subtle, manipulative edge that really deepens the character.

In contrast, Bud’s father, Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle, riveting, a scene swallower), can’t be bothered with subtlety. The cigar-chomping, blustery, millionaire owner of the aforementioned drilling operation comes over like Teddy Roosevelt crossed with a bulldog. “Don’t get yourself in trouble with that girl,” he bellows. “All my hopes are riding on you, son. Everything is riding on you!” He speaks more from fear than propriety. Stamper has big plans for Bud — Yale, a position in the family business, then an executive in whatever national oil company Ace is sure will soon buy up his local concern.

All of this might make Splendor in the Grass seem like a piece of dated sociological realism. Nothing could be more wrong. For like Kazan’s earlier A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, stories of small people at particular times and places, the emotions and themes Splendor in the Grass evokes are so large, so encompassing, the film swells to universal proportions.

The movie isn’t just about the way it was, the prudish hypocrisy of an earlier time, or outdated sexual mores. For all its provincialism, Splendor in the Grass is a story for the ages. A story of generational change, of the movement from youth to adulthood, of doomed love. When has that never been current?

A film of such magnitude requires actors who can carry the variety of emotional depth necessary for the story. One false or straining note would blow the thing apart. It has them in the two leads.

Warren Beatty vacillates between a deeply wounded but stoic pathos and sudden outbursts of either tears or violence. Little details — crying when Ginny his older sister (Barbara Loden, vivid as lightning) slaps him, embarrassed glances while discussing sex with his doctor, asleep curled up like a baby — expose the boy hidden in his varsity letterman’s body. The contrast marks just how profoundly his father has failed him and is all the more amazing for being Beatty’s first on-screen role.

Natalie Wood is a wonder to watch. She possesses large, expressive eyes that become a register for Deannie’s journey: the innocence of youth, then the mania of rebellion, and finally a mature, unerring gaze. She’s also adept at conveying a young person’s outsized emotions, moving with ease between dreamy swaying, to an adolescent annoyed at a hovering mother, to a heartbroken lover. In one striking sequence, when Deannie is off to a school dance in a red dress and visibly chaffing at the boundaries circling her since her birth, her mother says “Don’t stay out too late,” to which Deannie comments while adjusting her red garters, “I used to think that meant something. But it doesn’t.” Her spiteful tone is jarring. It’s unexpected coming from the character, but completely within character as well. Wood carries it off brilliantly.

Unfortunately, the feelings Deannie and Bud have for each other are like that overrunning reservoir: not to be controlled. Their immaturity makes them incapable of reconciling so passionate a love with the expectations of their parents and their era.  Trying to live up to them drives both Bud and Deannie to physical as well as mental and nervous exhaustion. It is some of the most heart-wrenching moments committed to celluloid.

The sense of pressure is helped along by Kazan’s choices of distance. You’d think a film set in rural Kansas would trade in wide shots — prairies and oil fields and roads stretching to the vanishing point. Of course, there’s some of that; Kazan opens the lens at particularly crucial moments. But for the most part, scenes take place in confined space — parlors, classrooms, hallways, movie theaters, bedrooms — while the camera also holds close to people’s faces. Bud and Deannie experience the world as a tight, confining place.

But I think the secondary storyline Kazan and Inge wove into the plot, a tale of maturity’s arrival, was what made me truly love Splendor in the Grass.  It makes a compelling story even more complex. By this, I don’t mean simple aging, or becoming jaded by experience (Lord knows, Bud and Deannie certainly could’ve turned out quite bitter), but a person’s growing understanding of their own agency in who they are, what they think and how they feel.

Deannie’s parents smother her as if she were a perpetual 12-year-old. They constantly call her “my baby” and “my little girl.” Her father’s sole advice throughout the film is “Drink plenty of milk, Deannie.” (Except near the end, in a subtle and brilliant scene when he delivers a piece of news that shows he understands she’s an adult now.) Deannie desperately needs people who see her for the young woman she has become.

Bud wants to marry Deannie and attend agricultural college. Ace Stamper thinks his son should party out his frustrations. He counsels that Bud find a “not so nice” girl to see on the side so he can attend Yale without distraction. The idea puts Bud in tears.

Bud and Deannie lack the experience and confidence to contest their parents. It takes a lot of anger and suffering, leaving home, the collapse of those stocks in Black Tuesday, for Bud and Deannie to realize their parents are merely people; earnest and concerned, yes, but — like everyone else — also flawed, scare, and certainly not all-knowing.

Near the end, Bud says to Deannie, “I hope you’re astoundingly happy.”

“I’m like you Bud,” she replies. “I don’t think much about being happy.”

“What’s the point? You just have to take things as they come.”

With those words, Deannie and Bud take their first steps into wisdom.

Watch ‘Splendor in the Grass’ at FilmStruck.

Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.

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