Splendor in the Grass earned a Best Actress nomination for Natalie Wood while also propelling newcomer Warren Beatty to stardom.
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.”
– William Wordsworth in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
File this viewing under better late than never. It’s been sitting on my DVR for quite some time but I’m glad to have finally gotten around to watching it. I had a few thoughts on my mind while watching this film. It’s still hard to believe that Natalie Wood would live for another two decades after making this film. One could only wonder what her career may have looked like if not for the unfortunate drowning. But aside from that, she puts on a hell of an acting performance. Wood would earn another Oscar nomination two years later for her work opposite Steve McQueen in 1963’s Love with a Proper Stranger. In any event, her career was at an interesting point going into the film –especially after a Warner Bros. suspension–but without Elia Kazan casting her, who knows what could have been.
Warren Beatty has had quite the career since transitioning to the big screen in Splendor in the Grass. How often is it that an actor can say that their first role was a leading role in one of the best love stories of all time? And to do so against Natalie Wood in his first big screen acting role?!? In any event, he shows his promising potential through the course of the 124-minute film.
The gist of Splendor in the Grass is that Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) and boyfriend Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) want to become more intimate with each other. But before the do, they seek their parents’ approval. It’s 1920s Kansas so what do you expect their parents will say? What would taking their relationship to the next level mean for Deanie’s reputation? Could it impact Bud’s plans for college? Not helping matters is the fact that Bud’s sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), recently annulled a marriage and might possibly have undergone an abortion. The Stampers feel much shame over their daughter. Listen, marriages can sometimes not work out and a woman has every right over what to do with her body even in the film’s late 1920s setting.
A few things happen after Ginny gets back to town. Bud has to intervene at a New Year’s party when someone tries to rape Ginny. As a result of this, he decides to break things off with Deanie. Suffice it to say, Deanie spirals after this. She gets angry with her mom. Deanie attends a school dance with Allen “Toots” Tuttle (Gary Lockwood) but sees Bud and wants to have sex with him. Bud declines and she goes back to Allen, only to not want to go through with it. It doesn’t matter how she feels because Allen nearly rapes her anyway. If you think Wood is about to catch a break as an actress at this point, it only gets challenging from here on out. Deanie tries killing herself but is rescued before she gets to the waterfalls. This results in Deanie being institutionalized.
Meanwhile, Bud’s off in Yale and fails almost every class. His father, Ace (Pat Hingle), has to visit in hopes of the dean letting Bud stay in school. Meanwhile, he and Bud head to New York City but decides to kill himself after the stock market crash. For one of the greatest love stories of all time, this film is pretty dark and somewhat depressing when you see what characters are going through. Even when Deanie comes home over two years later, there’s no chance of getting back together with Bud. He’s now married with a kid. Yes, she’s also planning to marry a doctor but there’s always going to be the what-if for the two of them. But still, you find yourself rooting for Deanie because it’s impossible to root against any Natalie Wood character.
A few years earlier, this film would probably have been impossible to make. At least, it would not be able to get a theatrical release in it’s final form. This also speaks to where things where with the Production Code at the time. With Joseph Breen out of the picture, there is no strict Hayes Code enforcement around this point in time. Things would drastically change by the end of the decade and for the better. Had Breen been in charge, I can only assume that he would not approve the film. One of Breen’s big enforcements is no sex on the screen especially with any characters out of wedlock. Like I said, things were changing as Hollywood entered the 1960s.
Elia Kazan directs Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty to some of their finest performances in Splendor in the Grass. William Inge’s Oscar-winning screenplay leaves something more to be desired but the film’s cast is able to elevate the script for what it is.
DIRECTOR: Eliza Kazan
SCREENWRITER: William Inge
CAST: Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie, Barbara Loden, Zohra Lampert, and introducing Warren Beatty, featuring Fred Stewart, Joanna Roos, John McGovern, Jan Norris, Martine Bartlett, Gary Lockwood, Sandy Dennis, Crystal Field, Marla Adams, Lynn Loring, Phyllis Diller, Sean Garrison
Warner Bros. released Splendor in the Grass in theaters in October 10, 1961. Grade: 4/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.