In small-town Kansas in 1928, fragile teenager Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis and handsome rich boy, Bud Stamper discover the excitement, fervor and complication of first love.
OSCAR Winner for Best Screenplay.
Nominated for Best Actress (Wood)
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There is a beautiful simplicity to this film’s opening scene. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, parked near a waterfall, are locked in a passionate embrace. The sweet innocence of this act is finally interrupted by the girl’s plea for the boy to stop. Which he does. With frustration. This subject matter, and perhaps this scene, is the blueprint for literally hundreds of films; but from a director as political and provocative as Elia Kazan, it soon becomes clear that there is nothing simple about the world of this film, and the turmoil and intensity that follows will break your heart.
The year is 1928; high school sweethearts, Bud Stamper (a young Warren Beatty in his first major role) and Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) struggle to reconcile their growing desire for one another with the sexual mores of their dusty Kansas town. Early on, Deanie asks her mother if “other women feel this way”, to which her mother promptly replies “nice ones don’t.” Meanwhile, Bud must deal with the high expectations of his wealthy oil-man father (played with great gusto by Pat Hingle), and defuse the tension caused by his sister, Ginny (played with perfect pitch by Barbara Loden), a wildly outspoken rebel, whose promiscuous actions and checkered past embarrass the family. There are moments when Ginny’s bad-girl vibe falls into caricature, but Loden’s commitment to the role is impressive, and she serves as a delicious, challenging foil to Deanie’s meek manner.
At school, there is a great divide between the girls who “have”, and those who “haven’t”, and the quest to be “good” and still be wanted by Bud becomes an obsession for Deanie, one that threatens her stability. This instability serves as an important reflection of the larger world of the film, which lifts the soul of this story out of the teen angst arena, and into one of broader social commentary that one would expect of Elia Kazan. A
This original screenplay, by playwright William Inge, won the Academy Award that year, while Natalie Wood received a nomination for her acting efforts. Her portrayal of Deanie is completely mesmerizing; she seems to act solely with her eyes, whether they are fixated on Bud, or staring in fascination at his sister, or welling up during an inevitable breakdown. And Warren Beatty, in his least cocky, confident role to date, somehow creates empathy for the young man who’s been emasculated by his father, and doesn’t step up as his girlfriend unravels.
Although set in 1928, Splendor in the Grass was timely for its release in 1961, serving as a subversive comment on the growing divide between the baby boomers and their parents. I truly believe that, while it’s classic in its depiction of “wrong side of the tracks” teenage love, it accomplishes so much more, and rightfully takes its place among the more important films of the 1960s.