Monday, September 19, 2005

Splendor in the Grass

When you think of Elia Kazan movies, there are a few landmarks - On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman's Agreement, etc. But my favorites of his are some of the less heralded films, especially Splendor in the Grass and A Face in the Crowd. There's some really great eye candy in Splendor in the Grass (for guys and gals) in the persons of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. And it's supposedly the first US film to show French kissing.

The movie at first seems to be a generic story about young love, but that's really not the point. It's really about two young people struggling to escape the fate their oppressive parents have carved out for them. Deanie and Budd each have one overbearing parental figure and one fairly supportive (though far less vocal) parental figure. Budd's father pushes him to excel at football and won't even listen when Budd says he wants to be a rancher. It's so sad when Budd sits down with his father to talk about the future and has to listen to a pep talk where his father tells him what he's going to do after graduation. Poor Budd keeps trying to interject, and all he can get out is "I want--" before his father butts in again and again and again.

Deanie's situation is barely more tolerable. She has some rather intense feelings for Budd, and being a female in Iowa in the 1920s just doesn't allow for that kind of thing. Early in the film her mother tells her that "no nice girl" has *those* kinds of feelings about a boy, and that a woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does ("She just lets her husband ... come near her ... in order to have children.") So not only is Deanie not allowed to entertain any of these feelings, but she's also being told it's wrong to *have* those feelings in the first place.

But Deanie's and Budd's relationship progresses fairly normally, until Budd decides he wants to marry her. He tells his father and does his best effort yet at speaking his mind, but unfortunately the father wins out again and persuades Budd to go to Yale instead, with a promise that if he still wants to marry Deanie after graduation he'll have Dad's blessing. Now real life is officially in the way of Budd's and Deanie's romance.

Budd and Deanie each hit rock bottom and spend the rest of the movie learning life's lessons apart from one another. When Deanie comes home at the end, the romantic viewer will be expecting a passionate reunion. But Wordsworth's lines about "splendor in the grass" are just as true in 20th century Iowa as they were in 19th century England. Life just doesn't work that way.

Natalie Wood was nominated for an Oscar for this movie (this was the same year she played Maria in West Side Story), and for good reason. She's far more than just an attractive young woman. The scene in the bathtub where she finally snaps is almost scary. And Warren Beatty does an excellent job as well, especially in the scene where he tells his father he wants to go to an agricultural school. He's so desperate to be heard that he's almost crying when he says "I'd really like to do that, Dad!" Of course, having a director like Kazan didn't do Wood or Beatty any harm.

There's a great supporting cast as well, and all of them have great moments. Pat Hingle plays Budd's father with all the necessary self-loathing. Joanna Roos is my hero as Budd's mother and utters my favorite randomly funny line in the movie ("Oh dear. Neither of my children gets any real nourishment."). Audrey Christie plays Deanie's mother to puritanical perfection, and Fred Stewart is wonderfully understated as Deanie's common sense dad. And Barbara Loden eats up every scene she's in as Budd's wayward sister.

It's just a heart-breakingly real and profound movie, and I check it out four or five times a year. Good, good stuff.

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