Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, etc.

I recommend this first to Mitchell, Penny, Chris, Tony, Kevin and Grace. Joel, Don, Marc and Jill would probably think this was OK, but I don’t think this is something they would especially enjoy. I think the film held Larri’s attention, but she ultimately didn’t care for it. A good pick for the 1001 book.

The film is about a teenage lovers, Deanie (Wood) and Bud (Beatty). Both are seniors in high school, and Bud wants to quickly marry Deanie and work on a farm after graduation. But Bud’s wealthy father wants to him to postpone marriage until he can finish school at Yale. This makes life difficult for Bud primarily because of the strong sexual urges he has for Deanie, urges that cannot be sated until they get married. Deanie’s mother also makes it clear that not only are “good girls” not sexually active outside of marriage, but they don’t even have sexual urges. The story is about the way Deanie and Bud–along with their parents–struggle with the issue. Recommended to any individual who works with or cares about teenagers.

Pre-70s melodramas films often feel hamfisted–giving the film a dated quality, especially the acting–and so they don’t impact me in the intended way, but this is a very powerful and provocative film. I don’t know if I would go so far as saying the characters/acting aren’t dated, but they really tap into some raw emotions that feel authentic. The result is a really effective melodrama, particularly the anguish of both characters. For me, much of the pathos comes from Natalie Wood’s performance (although Beatty is solid in this, too)–particularly the innocence and intense adoration for Bud (almost unhealthy) and the confusion and psychological breakdown that follows. I believe the performances would impact modern audiences–teenagers included–which would say something since today’s teen would find the drama of many teenage characters in older films laughable.

These good performances are used to explore key question raised by the film, namely how should a society deal with sexual desires of adolescents? I really liked adolescent perspective on this issue, as well as the way the parents and adults handle the issue in the film. The parent’s (and society’s) approach is repression, denial and an attitude that sex is bad and dirty, something that good people–or more accurately females–don’t do. The result is severe psychological and emotional damage to the young lovers.

The feeling the film left me with was the way adults–or more precisely society–has utterly failed to help adolescents. In this way, the film reminded me a lot of Gus Van Sant’s films involving teenage characters. I have to believe the film was controversial and must have provoked serious conversations from thoughtful and caring parents and adults. Part of the reason for this is the depiction of the parents on the screen. On one level they seem like villains, insensitive and thoughtless. But on another level, they deserve some sympathy; this is not an easy issue to deal with. After all, after fifty years, we still don’t handle the issue very well.

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