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 setting is Kansas in 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 she is dating the high profile Bud, Deanie's frigid mother (Audrey Christie) is adamant good girls do not enjoy sex.

The Stampers are wealthy oil tycoons, and patriarch Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle) 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 Bud does not care for. The desires and intentions of the lovers and their parents will face severe tests.

Directed by Elia Kazan and written by William Inge, Splendor In The Grass features two memorable characters buffeted by the currents of destiny. Bud and Deanie start as two hopeful teens and transform over two hours to jaded adults, a journey filled with mounting desperation that life may indeed conspire to comprehensively sabotage true love's destiny.

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 most of his composure; his forlorn soul mate is less fortunate. Deanie's plight is an astonishing reminder that until early in the 20th century, female hysteria was a common diagnosis for women suffering through sexual dissatisfaction. She tries to repress raging sexual desire, conflicted between raw attraction for Bud and all the stop signs planted in her path by an icy cold mother. She emerges from her ordeal a tightly wired cage of suppression, a tense smile working overtime to beat down rage.

Inge pokes at the generational divide and hacks away at the wisdom of parents and adults. Deanie and Bud's downward spiral towards emotional 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. 

Wood is a revelation in a physically adventurous and mentally tortuous role, while the enigmatic Beatty's performance is remarkably assured for a young actor stepping into his first big screen role. Pat Hingle towers over every scene he is in, Ace Stamper the manifestation of caring annihilated by domination.

Splendor In The Grass is a powerful drama, tackling taboo subject matter with daring, sensitivity, and bravado.

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