Splendor in the Grass
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One of the most poignant themes of the 'Coming of Age' Film is First Love...usually bittersweet, wrapped in soft-focus nostalgia, and accompanied by string-drenched music. But Splendor in the Grass (1961), made at a time when both films and society were undergoing profound changes, is darker. It deals realistically, even shockingly, with the agony of first love, and the forces that drive lovers apart. Bud and Deanie are high school sweethearts in 1920's Kansas, who are finding it increasingly difficult to resist their sexual urges. Deanie's puritanical mother warns her that "nice girls don't"...so Deanie doesn't. Bud's nouveau-riche father urges him to find a not-so-nice girl to take care of those urges. The consequences are disastrous. With avant-garde composer David Amram's modern (and often dissonant) music, and Richard Sylbert's stark, striking production design adding atmosphere, Splendor in the Grass is the antithesis of sentimental.
Splendor in the Grass was based on people that playwright William Inge knew growing up in 1920's Kansas. Inge, the author of plays and films such as Picnic (1955) and Bus Stop (1956), told the story to director Elia Kazan when they were working on a production of Inge's play, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, in 1957. Both agreed it would make a good film, and that they'd like to work on it together. Inge wrote it first as a novel, then as a screenplay.
Inge had seen a brooding young actor named Warren Beatty in a New Jersey stock production, and was impressed enough to give Beatty the lead in his new play, A Loss of Roses. The play flopped, but Inge and Beatty became friends. When Splendor in the Grass was ready for production, Inge suggested Beatty for the role of Bud. Kazan, annoyed by the untried actor's arrogance, but impressed by his presence and his talent, agreed to cast him as Bud. It was Beatty's first film, and it made him an overnight star.
Natalie Wood, on the other hand, was a Hollywood veteran. Now 22, she had been an actress since she was five. Although she'd easily managed the transition from child star to adult roles, the films she'd made lately hadn't done much for her career. Wood was under contract to Warner Brothers, which was producing Splendor in the Grass, and the studio wanted Kazan to use her. Considering her an over-the-hill child star, Kazan resisted. But when he met Wood, he sensed her restlessness and volatility, ideal for Deanie. Wood threw herself into the role, even agreeing to do a nude scene - the first ever by a major star in a mainstream film. The scene was shot, but this was a "first" studio head Jack Warner could live without - he insisted the nudity be cut. Only a fleeting glimpse remains in the American release of the film.
The two stars were so intensely involved in their roles that they were soon living them, although Wood was married to Robert Wagner, and Beatty was living with Joan Collins. Far from being upset, Method director Kazan encouraged the affair. "I wasn't sorry," Kazan later admitted. "It helped their love scenes." By the time Splendor in the Grass premiered in the fall of 1961, Beatty and Wood had left their mates and were living together.
Another real-life incident during the filming now seems hauntingly prophetic. In the film, Deanie, distraught over her breakup with Bud, throws herself into a reservoir. Before the filming, Wood told Kazan that she was terrified of water, and felt that her fear would paralyze her and she wouldn't be able to play the scene. But she did, and her near-hysteria made it even more harrowing. In 1981, Wood drowned when she fell off her yacht...which was named the "Splendour."
When Splendor in the Grass opened theatrically, it received excellent reviews; Wood was nominated for an Academy Award, and William Inge received one for his screenplay. Both Wood's and Beatty's performances were also highly praised. Of Natalie Wood, Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "There is poetry in her performance, and her eyes in the final scene bespeak the moral significance and emotional fulfillment of this film."
Producer/Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: William Inge
Editor: Gene Milford
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Production Designer: Richard Sylbert
Music: David Amram
Principal Cast: Natalie Wood (Wilma Dean Loomis), Warren Beatty (Bud Stamper), Pat Hingle (Ace Stamper), Audrey Christie (Mrs. Loomis), Barbara Loden (Ginny Stamper), Zohra Lampert (Angelina).
by Margarita Landazuri