Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass sets the tone right from its first scene with our two protagonists in the midst of a make out session by a rushing waterfall. Considering that this is also Warren Beatty’s first scene ever in a motion picture, it’s almost doubly appropriate. Beatty throughout his career would be looked at as the hunky movie star exuding sex appeal and right from the start, the star begins his tumultuous relationship with women, on and off screen, as sex would play in an important role in the majority of his major work in the years to come. In fact, Kazan’s film, with a script by William Inge, is quite shocking for its time considering its treatment of sexuality, with Natalie Wood’s character in particular.
Wood and Beatty play two teenagers madly in love with each other in Kansas during the late 1920s. The specter of the market crash looms over the proceedings as the two characters deal with their relationship, school, and family. Kazan deals head on with teenage sexuality creating a frank and open dialogue about sex and the pent up frustration of growing up. Well, the two characters do seem madly in love but they could just as easily be madly in lust. Throughout, the characters bemoan, scream, and shriek, pushing up against the idea of being “good” instilled by their parents. The two characters fighting these urges culminate in their eventual breakup and in Wood’s sexual mania.
Beatty is good here in his film debut, playing it subdued and bristling, as the frustrations with his characters longing for something just a little bit more with Wood’s character as well as bustling up against his father’s expectations of him, another major theme of the film well represented. Beatty feels fresh here, still charming but not overbearingly so as would characterize some of his later work. There’s a vulnerability to his performance here that he would later lose as he would seem to gain more and more confidence.
It’s Natalie Wood, however, who delivers quite the knockout performance. After the break-up of the relationship, Wood’s character goes mad in sexual frustration and despair and has a complete nervous breakdown. There are moments where the scenes almost become too much and border dangerously close to parody but Wood’s performance and primal screams keep the film’s more melodramatic elements in check. She gives a completely naked performance, bearing herself, body and soul and elevates the film into something truly special.
Teenage frustration and longing can be a difficult thing to represent on film. Often, it can become overly obnoxious and annoying as a multitude of teen films has demonstrated. Kazan, however, guides two wonderful performances from his leads and makes a real believable story about not just the sexual mores of young adulthood but growing up into one’s own self. Much of the dramatic conflict comes from outside as well as within the relationship, as Beatty’s father played by Pat Hingle imposes his own wants and desire upon his son. Hingle is boisterously good as Beatty’s father, switching from a loving father pose to menacing distress with ease. Wood’s mother, played by Audrey Christie, enforces her own rules of morality upon her daughter as well leading to her eventual breakdown. She of course is oblivious to this blaming everything that goes wrong on a young Beatty.
There’s a wistful nostalgia to better period even when the film is living within them but the film is quick to dismiss the notion. Characters are in constant motion, trying to decide the people they want to be and trying to decide who they are from moment to moment. Kazan has crafted a beautifully shot film with some strong central performances. Without the strength of Wood and Beatty at the heart of the film, things could easily fall into annoying pastiches of old clichés about growing up. Beatty and Wood imbue their characters with real warmth, vulnerability, and despair.
There are a few story problems with the film. Though the inevitable market crash provides the story with an undercurrent of foreboding, it’s entire purpose in the story feels unclear. An instance of dramatic irony creates a situation where Wood’s and Beatty’s families switch power positions in town but with the exception of one tragic occurrence, little is done with the story point. Speaking of families, Beatty’s character has a party girl sister who throws herself onto any man that comes her way. She represents everything that our two main characters are controlling themselves to keep from becoming. However, part way through the film after a harrowing near rape that leads to the eventual dissolution of the Beatty and Wood’s relationship in consequence, the character completely disappears with only a line or two at the end to indicate her ultimate fate. It’s a bit befuddling as it was an interesting character to thrust between two incredibly chaste characters but it seems, like the male characters in the film, once they ran out of use for her, they disposed of her just as quickly.
As much as the first half of the film seems dedicated to the undercurrents of sexual frustration and dissatisfaction, the film moves beyond that one note and folds it into the larger themes of who we want to be and that vital time in our lives when we come to terms with how we want to get there. It’s once Beatty loses his virginity to another girl and Wood spirals into despair that the film comes alive in interesting and unexpected ways. Splendor in the Grass takes its title from a poem by William Wordsworth recited within the film about the beauty of the past and the strength to take from that youth you never get back. Kazan’s film dramatizes those elements to great effect and creates a beautifully acted drama out of those simple ideas and real human conflicts.