Like William Inge’s earlier piece, Picnic, or some of Tennessee Williams’ most substantial work, Splendor in the Grass seems to hinge on the fact its content is in some way pushing the envelope as far as social issues and subsequent taboos go. It’s no surprise Elia Kazan was often drawn to such content over the course of his career on stage and screen. Hence his numerous collaborations with some of the landmark playwrights of the mid-20th century.
But again, in spite of being a Depression-era period piece, Splendor in the Grass comes off as a bit dated for how it’s trying to grapple with its contemporary moment — at least to begin with.
Our protagonists Norma Dean (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are coming of age in a society with a curious way of making sense of sexual mores. They are so confusing and no one seems willing to talk about them. When they do their advice only complicates matters.
Because the two teens look into each other’s eyes lovingly in the hallways at school. The affection is palpable and they want to do it right. They believe that the other is probably the “One.” Norma Dean has a Bud triptych up in her bedroom. Her devotion verging on obsession. Bud tells his boisterous father (Pat Hingle) he’s bent on marrying the girl.
They want to have intimacy but no one seems capable of dispelling the myths for them. Mrs. Loomis is quick to make sure her daughter hasn’t gone too far with her beau. She doesn’t want her daughter to be one of those girls — easy pickings with no respectability. It’s like a death sentence in a small town like theirs.
Kazan also captures the almost incoherent whisperings of bystanders whether concerned parents, students, neighbors, or partygoers. Because it’s true every slight tilt toward something “abnormal” gets the whole community talking. There’s a stigma attached to so many things.
The perfect example is Bud’s own sister, a prototypical floozie named Ginny (Barbara Loden), who is used to a good time and cavorts with nearly any man who will take her. Her father tries to keep a rein on her and Bud begs his sister to pull herself together. You can tell he’s genuinely worried about what she is willfully doing to herself.
Whereas Norma Dean’s mother preaches chastity to her little girl, Bud’s own father encourages him to find another type of girl — a girl in fact not unlike his daughter — someone who is easy. He preaches a gospel of sowing his wild oats before settling down to a life of prosperity and a Yale education. Bud eventually takes the advice and generally finds it lacking, though he still winds up terminating his relationship with Deanie. His experiences in college aren’t much better as he’s always maintained humbler aspirations.
Already so devoted to him, Deanie is emotionally torn apart by the separation, going so far as to teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her mother encourages her to court another boy named Toots (Gary Lockhart) who comes a calling, but it literally drives Deanie to the brink where she looks to jump off and save herself any future heartache.
When she enters her home and her parents seem oblivious to her feelings, bombarding her with happiness, it somehow feels like a precursor to Benjamin Braddock’s suffocation. It’s not simply that we begin to take on Deanie’s point of view, but there’s such a relational disconnect. Parents have no idea what their kids are going through and they seem hardly capable of empathizing with them.
So they go it alone. Natalie Wood soaking in the bathtub. Her voice gets more airy and unsettled by the minute. She’s the epitome of fragility. Bud struggling away from home and looking for understanding in another girl (Zohra Lampert) or a benevolent school official who actually chooses to listen to him, unlike his father.
However, far from demonizing parents, we realize just how much pressure there is on them, so many mistakes to be made, ways you treat your kids, which unwittingly affect them in their future. It’s just the way it is. Art Stamper cares so much about the success of his kids and he’s put his entire life into setting up their good fortune. Where does it get him in the end? Likewise, Mrs. Loomis dotes incessantly over her daughter confessing she did her best as a mother, afraid Norma Dean holds past failings against her.
Then, her parents make the heady decision to send her away for therapy and things begin to reach an equilibrium. The plot feels like vague fragments rather than a fully cohesive narrative from start to finish, but it gives us hints and contours of our main characters trying to decipher their lives.
As times passes, there’s less and less of Kazan’s more dramaturgical entries and more of Wild River another Depression-era drama, which was equally blessed with understatement in its most crucial moments. I think Splendor in The Grass does well to ditch drama for a near wistful milieu feeling at home in the poetic romanticism of William Wordsworth. Regardless, it proves a healthier place to wind up.
It’s a more hopeful rendition of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The romance we thought would be something — even marred by scandal — was nothing of the sort. It just dissipated and with the passage of time two people found others and it seemed right.
When Bud and Deanie meet again, in the end, they muse how strangely things work out sometimes. Neither of them would have foreseen things this way. He’s a farmer now, with a kindly wife, and a boy with another child on the way. She’s to marry a successful doctor whom she met while she was in the care facility. It really is a satisfying denouement.
Instead of thinking about happiness, they take what comes and find contentment wherever life leads them. For people so young, they seem to have a fairly clear handle on doing precisely that.
With his debut, Warren Beatty readily became another protege of Elia Kazan gleaning anything he could, serving him well in a diverse career as an actor, producer, and director that is still going to this day. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood benefited as well in a performance that though it borders on the spastic, nevertheless seems to cull depths of emotional instability yet untouched in her career.
Now we cannot immediately label those the hallmarks of a great performance. Yet maybe the vulnerability brought on makes it so. The film is at its best in its innocence and transparency finally giving way to a newfound maturity. The old maxim manages to ring true; time heals all wounds.