Thursday, 6 October 2011

Movie Review: Splendor In The Grass (1961)


A strikingly frank exploration of sexual repression, Splendor In The Grass launched the career of Warren Beatty, revitalized the fortunes of Natalie Wood, and ushered in a new decade of dramatically increased sexual openness in both the movies and society.

The film is set in Kansas of the late 1920s, just ahead of the stock market crash and the Great Depression. High school sweethearts Deanie Loomis (Wood) and Bud Stamper (Beatty) are planning their futures, and barely able to restrain themselves from having sex. Bud is more than willing, but Deanie wants to wait: she comes from a relatively modest family, and although her parents are thrilled that she is dating the high profile Bud, Deanie's frigid mother (Audrey Christie) is adamant that good girls do not indulge in sex or enjoy it.

The Stampers are wealthy oil tycoons, and Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), the patron of the family, encourages Bud to seek sexual relations with other girls until he marries Deanie. Ace also has Bud's future all laid out for him, including sending him to Yale for an education that Bud does not care for.

Unable to have sex with the unwilling Deanie, Bud does indeed seek comfort elsewhere. Both will discover that life can take tragically unexpected turns, inconsistent with well-intentioned expectations.

Splendor In The Grass is another gem in the stellar career of director Elia Kazan. Renowned for bringing out the best in young talent like Marlon Brando and James Dean, here Kazan works with 24 year old Warren Beatty, making his big-screen debut, and Natalie Wood, still only 23 years old but struggling to remain relevant after a series of flops. Working from William Inge's script, written directly for the screen, Kazan helps his stars deliver two intense and sustained performances, hopeful teens transforming over two hours to jaded adults, a journey filled with mounting desperation that life may indeed conspire to comprehensively sabotage true love's destiny.

Beatty's performance is remarkably assured and mature for a young actor stepping into his first big screen role. His Bud Stamper walks a tightrope between loving Deanie and lusting after her while alternating between respect and contempt for his father. Bud at least maintains his sanity and finds solace in the arms of other women; his forlorn soul mate is not so fortunate.

In a physically adventurous and mentally tortuous role, Wood is a revelation as Deanie, desperately trying to repress raging sexual desire, conflicted between raw attraction for Bud and all the stop signs planted in her path by her icy cold mother. Her plight is an astonishing reminder that until early in the 20th century, female hysteria was a common diagnosis for women suffering through sexual dissatisfaction, and she emerges from her ordeal a tightly wired cage of suppression, a tense smile working overtime to beat down the rage against life's careless destruction of her love. Deanie reignited Wood's career, and she received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Pat Hingle towers over every scene that he is in, no easy accomplishment when the enigmatic Beatty is also in the frame. Ace Stamper is the dangerous outcome of apparent caring annihilated by utter domination, a man who can only dictate and can never even begin to listen. Hingle's acting career spanned six decades, but he had few roles as memorable as Ace Stamper.

Inge's screenplay does nothing to promote the wisdom of parents or adults in general. Deanie and Bud's downward spiral towards misery is a direct result of respecting their parents wishes. Deanie's mother and Bud's father do all the overt damage, but by their lack of active intervention to provide a counterbalance, Deanie's father and Bud's mother contribute to the ruin by simple neglect. When Bud turns to a doctor for advice, he receives none. The film provides good enough reasons for the 1960s to become the decade when teens disconnected from the adults in their lives.

Splendor In The Grass is a powerful drama, tackling controversy with daring and sensitivity, crashing through the gates of taboo subjects and helping to pave the path for a new cinematic era.






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