It has been an awfully long time since I last saw an Elia Kazan movie: a few months before starting this blog to be exact when I saw his Best Picture winning film Gentleman’s Agreement.
To many Elia Kazan is known as an ‘actor’s director’ as he was able to produce films with a whacking 21 Oscar nominations for acting with 7 of them resulting in wins. Three of these came from his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire – including a well deserved win for Vivian Leigh in the role of Blanche DuBois.
Now, Splendor in the Grass is not a movie that could have been made in the throes of the Hays Code. There are still remnants of it here with nothing too explicit being shown. The obvious example of this being the lack of a scene showing one of the characters throwing themselves out of a window – instead we just see his body laying on the floor as discovered by police.
Still, how could you do a mainstream film about sexual repression under the restrictions of the Hays Code? Well you could, just not as good as this one. Similarly this is a film that could only have come to pass with the accepted ‘rise of the teenager’ as, in the end, this is a film about a boy and a girl having to deal with the sexual repression enforced by their parents.
The real centre of this film is Deanie (Natalie Wood) who has to deal with the pull of her urges against the near constant lectures by her mother into being a ‘good girl’. As you would expect, this causes a great deal of friction with her steady boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty in his cinematic debut) who is desperate to get his release.
Bud has his own deal of issues with his father thrusting unrealistic expectations in his direction after the fall (and recent abortion) of his sister. It’s in this part of the film where the, still existing, double standard of expectations happens. Bud is expected to find that type of girl who will have sex with him (as that is all normal), but his sister is shunned because she is that type of girl.
In spite of all this Deanie stays virginal… and of course ends up being broken up with. The resulting scene of her yelling at her mother whilst in the bath (yes it’s as weird as that sounds) is amazing to watch. The only other film that I had seen Natalie Wood in was West Side Story and I wasn’t too taken with that… but she is absolutely magnificent in Splendor in the Grass.
Considering how high school movies have evolved in the last 30 years it’s gratifying to see that this is a film that has aged very well. Granted a lot of that is due to being set in the late 1920s, but with stellar performances by the central cast I think this is something that could still be watched by young adults nowadays despite us being a long time after the sexual revolution of the 1960s.