Splendor in the Grass Reviews
A must-see flick.
Powerful and shockingly revealing treatment of teen sexuality, repression, and especially mental illness. It even exposes the American Dream with its underside of false hopes, crushing expectations, and the weird demands overly ambiguous parents put on their children bc of societal norms.
If you are willing to follow everything despite the Technicolor flourishes and the sometimes overwrought emotions, this is a surprisingly satisfying story.
There is a thoughtful, naturalistic element to the acting here, and it speaks volumes to the craft of acting, and it rings true.
5 out of 5
What a sad, beautiful film. Not to mention some really shocking scenes (especially for '61) that still make you gasp.
The film opens with the two of them making out heavily while parked by a waterfall (the crashing falls a little heavy in their symbolism), and her stopping him, much to his frustration. Once home, her mother cautions her about going too far, and then tells her that not only do good girls save themselves for marriage, but they don't have those urges at all(!) Meanwhile, he goes home to a father who tells him he'll have to marry her if he gets her pregnant, and then rams his vision for the boy's future down this throat, which is Yale followed by a job in his oil business, all without pausing to listen to him. Both go to bed understandably frustrated. Their parents have spoken to them out of love, but not in an open-minded way, and one that's hopelessly outdated.
You really feel for Wood in this film. Her looks of love into Beatty's eyes are intensely endearing. Frustrated, he tests his power over her by pushing her to her knees and saying "at my feet, slave", and makes her tell him how much she loves him. She says she would do anything for him, and we believe it, but understand she won't do *that*. It drives Beatty crazy and he wants to marry her, but his father insists that he wait until after college, and encourages him to go after a "different kind of girl" to relieve his frustrations(!) The well-meaning but bad parenting abounds. Ultimately Beatty breaks it off with Wood despite their love for one another, and from there, her spiral begins.
Wood has three fantastic scenes that earned her an Academy Award nomination. In the first, her teacher forces her to recite a poem from William Wordsworth; the words clearly relate to her heartbreak:
"What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
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..."
The second has her in the bathtub, where her mother's only concern is whether he "spoiled" her, and her emotional reaction, expressing her grief and frustration of it all, "spoiled?? I'm not spoiled, mom! I'm not spoiled, mom! I'm just as fresh and viriginal as the day I was born, mom!" her voice and emotion rising. We really feel the hypocrisy of the double standard - girls are either "bad" or "good" - and the horrible position this puts them in.
In the third scene, Wood throws herself at Beatty, saying she's not a nice girl, and he resists, sensing her desperation and knowing they shouldn't do it in her state of mind. He asks her where's her pride, and she erupts, "My pride?! I haven't any pride! I just want to die!"
Did I mention heartbreaking? They part, Beatty to a life of dissipation at Yale, Wood to a mental institution in Virginia. They never forget one another, but their time is past. The ending is brilliantly balanced. A couple of years later she sees him for closure; he's married with a child, and she's engaged. She asks him whether he's happy, and he replies, "I guess so. I don't ask myself that question much ... What's the point, ya gotta take what comes." So poignant.
One thing I've always found a little odd is how Beatty's bohemian, somewhat wild sister, played very well by Barbara Loden, disappears after some great scenes, the last of which has her drinking too much out of frustration at a New Year's party, 1929. She underscores the double standard and the desire to freely pursue one's destiny, wanting to go to California and study art, and saying she's a "freak in this town". The other small knock I have is that while the film is set in 1928, aside from the old car and some elements of the set, it really feels like 1961, the year it was made, based on the appearances of the characters and the story itself.
No matter, though. This is a timeless story of heartache and passion, and yet in the end, maturity in working through breaking up over a love that (unfairly) couldn't be. Kazan directs it well, bringing out great performances and emotion, without being overly melodramatic. He's also daring - what Beatty (and Wood) want is abundantly clear - while at the same time being honest, and real. Definitely recommended.
This is in part rescued by the great performance by Natalie Wood (which got her an Oscar nomination) and the solid performance by Warren Beatty, in the lead roles. This was Beatty's big screen debut.
Support is a bit hit-and-miss. Pat Hingle is incredibly irritating as the overbearing father. One could blame the writer or director for that, but he seemed way over-the-top.
The first half of the story is a coming of age story. It explores the social dynamic of two types of girls. It used to exist in this country, and still exists in many others. As doctrine it states, "There are two types of girls, one who is chaste and pure that you eventually marry. The other, one who is lose and fun that no one will ever marry." Warren Battey wants to sleep with Natalie Wood, and wants to marry her. He is willing to wait until they are married, but his father won't let him, so he is left with wanting to sleep with Natalie before they are married. Natalie wants to sleep with him as well, partly because she wants to make him happy, partly because she wants to. She resists because she doesn't want to be the second type of girl, thus they will never get married.
Natalie's father is somewhat interesting. He seems ineffectual. The first few times I saw him, I laughed. Very silly, in one scene he walks right into a dramatic moment, just thinking, "I'm just going to walk over here, wearing my straw hat." That might just be my interpretation. While perhaps an ineffectual man, at the end of the day he is a very effectual father. He sells his stock in the oil company to take care of his daughter. He has faith in her, he is the only one willing to allow her to meet Warren at the end of the movie.
One interestingly disturbing scene is when Warren is choking Natalie and commanding her to worship him. It is not the best scene in the movie, but every time I see it becomes more compelling.
Warren Battey's mother is not interesting. His father is obsessed with making sure his son marry the right type of girl. He doesn't even care that his daughter has become the wrong type of girl. He so wants a better life for his son that Warren isn't allowed to have the life he wants.
Natalie's mother is perhaps the most compelling adult. She comments to Natalie that a woman doesn't enjoy sex, she just does it to make her husband happy. This compounds the confusion Natalie is having, by asserting that she is wrong to even want to have sex.
This reminds me of an interview I once saw with a homemaker. She was talking about how much she cooks, and it seemed like she enjoyed cooking. When asked if she likes to cook, she took a pause and said, "Not really." This may be a wild guess on my part, but I think she actually likes cooking. She says she doesn't because she considers herself a feminist, and she believes that a woman doesn't do those things she does them because she has to. Feminism is good when it allows women to do things, but bad when it holds them back. There is a George Carlin routine where he, in the name of feminism, attacks housewives. When feminism is used like this it leads people to react negatively to all feminism.
Natalie Wood goes crazy, which she always does brilliantly. The most brilliant scene is her confronting her mother in the bathtub. The last part is basically an extended conclusion. Natalie goes to a mental institution. Here a psychiatrist gives her the second best piece of advice in this movie, "We blame our parents for everything these days, but remember they had parents too." She gets better. The market crashes, which means Natalie's father was able to get more out of his stock than anyone else. Warren's father commits suicide, a fairly fitting finish. Warren meets a woman in New York. "You've never had pizza?" she asks. She rejects the two types of woman doctrine and leads a healthy, modern life.
The very end has Natalie (now engaged) and Warren (now married) meet again. Natalie is surprised by his barefoot and pregnant wife. We are left with a shot that leads us to wonder if Natalie is okay with Warren's happy marriage. I think she is.