Friday, 24 July 2015

Film Friday: "Splendor in the Grass" (1961)

To celebrate Natalie Wood's birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I'm bringing you one of my favorite films of hers, which also happens to be the first film I ever saw with her.

Original release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Elia Kazan, Splendor in the Grass (1961) tells the story of Wilma "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), two young lovers living in a small Kansas town in the late 1920s. Deanie's mother (Audrey Christie) is a domineering woman who boasts of her aversion to men and warns her daughter that nice girls do not have sexual feelings. Bud's father, Ace (Pat Hingle), an arrogant self-made millionaire, has "all his hopes pinned" on his son and tells him to forget marriage until he graduates from Yale. Unable to consummate their love, the confused and frustrated youngsters end their relationship. After Bud becomes sexually involved with Juanita Howard (Jan Norris), the most permissive girl in school, Deanie attempts suicide and is sent away for psychiatric care.

While Deanie is at the institution, Bud goes off to Yale, where he fails almost all of his courses. Sometime later, he learns that his sexually promiscous sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), was killed in  car accident and that his father committed suicide after his oil holdings were wiped out by the October 1929 stock market crash. Bud then decides to leave Yale and marries a poor Italian waitress named Angelina (Zohra Lampert), whom he met in New Haven. When Deanie is released from the sanitarium after two years and six months, "almost to the day," fellow patient Johnny Masterson (Charles Robinson) proposes to her and offers her the chance for a new life. Before she can accept, however, Deanie feels that she must see Bud once more and goes to visit him at his little farm. During their brief reunion, they realize that both must accept what life has thrown at them and although they still love each other, they can never recover that blazing love of youth which they once had.

Deanie Loomis: Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strenght in what remains behind.

In late 1957, while co-producing and directing William Inge's play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Elia Kazan "dropped a casual remark" that the two might someday collaborate on a film project and asked the writer if he had any good material for a screenplay. Inge, whose credits include Bus Stop (1955) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic (1953), had never written a script before, but he was intrigued by the suggestion and told Kazan a true story he had heard as a boy growing up in the 1920s in the small town of Independence, Kansas about a couple of high school kids who, like himself, felt trapped by the oppressive puritanism of time and place. Enthusiastic about the idea, Kazan immediately said, "let's do it."

By early spring in 1958, Inge submitted a first draft entitled "Splendor in the Grass," the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers which he felt reflected "the pain my generation expressed in coming to maturity, and with the conflicts we fought to find our personal standards when society demanded we accept only her own." According to Kazan, what the playwright handed in to him was a "dramatic narrative with dialogue" that lacked the essentials of a proper screenplay, so the two began working closely together to cut and rearrange Inge's script, giving it "form and shape" for the cinema. After receiving approval from the Motion Picture Production Code for the basic story of Splendor in the Grass, the film officially went into pre-production later that year.

Beatty, Kazan and Wood on the set
Consciously or unconsciously, Kazan always chose to make films that expressed his own opinion in some way and dealt with personal or social issues that he was familiar with. While Splendor in the Grass was reportedly a coded version of Inge's personal experience, his own "forbidden" love for a handsome high school senior, there were certain elements of the story that resonated with Kazan's own experiences as well, notably the effects of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the power of parents, particularly fathers, "to obstruct and distort the efforts of their children to develop their own lives and identities." 

In addition, Kazan also had a personal interest and involvement in another key theme of Splendor in the Grass, that of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which had been present in his life since 1945, when his first wife insisted that they see an analyst in hopes to restore their marriage after his affair with the model turned actress Constance Dowling. Before filming began, Kazan sent the script to a psychiatrist, seeking a deeper analysis of the characters, and also visited the prestigious Menninger Clinic, a pioneering psychiatric institution specialized in the problems of young people founded in Tepeka, Kansas in the mid-1920s. To Kazan, the fact that the first mental hospital of its kind was located in mid-Western America was "almost an acknowledge that mid-America was cracking up, that its values were not working."

Natalie Wood as Deanie Loomis
When the time came for casting Splendor in the Grass, it was Inge who suggested Natalie Wood for the role of Deanie. Wood had been one of Hollywood's most successful child stars, hitting her peak with the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but by the early 1960s she was having a difficult time transitioning into more adult roles. Although Kazan had been impressed by her poignant Oscar-nominated performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955),  he was reluctant to cast an actress who had been declared "washed up" by the film industry and began considering Lee Remick and Jane Fonda for the part. When Kazan met Wood, however, he realized that she was indeed the right person to play Deanie. 

When Natalie was first suggested to me, I backed off. I didn't want a "washed-up child star." But when I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered "young wife" front a desperate twinkle in her eyes. I knew there was an unsatisfied hunger there [...] I talked with her more quietly then and more personally. I wanted to find out what human material was there, what her inner life was [...] Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it.
(Elia Kazan)

Audrey Christie and Natalie Wood
Splendor in the Grass was an exhilarating but wrenching experience for the 22-year-old Wood, who saw herself facing her innermost demons during the making of the film. The scene that proved most problematic for the young actress was the one where a heartbroken Deanie tries to drown herself in a lake. A few days before they shot the sequence, she told Kazan that she had "a terror of water, particularly dark water, and of being helpless in it" and wasn't sure that she could play the scene. The director then asked his assistant to get into the water with her and while that didn't entirely reassure her, she managed to do the scene. "On dry land she continued to shake with fear, then laughed histerically, with relief," Kazan later recalled. Ironically, the yacht from which Wood stepped into dark water to her premature death twenty years later was called The Splendor.

While Kazan was deciding whether to cast Jody McCrea or Troy Donahue in the role of Bud Stamper, Inge was working on a Broadway play called A Loss of Roses, starring an attractive 23-year-old actor named Warren Beatty. Although the production was a failure, Beatty received glowing reviews for his role as a young gas station attendant living in Depression-era Kansas and even received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Inge immediately recommended him to Kazan, convinced that he would be "just perfect" to play Bud, but the director thought Beatty was "awful raw, awful new and rather clumsy." However, Kazan saw something of Bud in Beatty and agreed to cast him in the role.

Pat Hingle and Warren Beatty
Briefly trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Beatty was a newcomer to the motion picture industry, appearing mostly in small television parts in shows like Studio One (1957) and Playhouse 90 (1959). He was ecstatic to learn that he had won the lead role in his first feature film and even more so to be working with Kazan, whom he greatly admired. Although Kazan thought Beatty was a little "snotty", he took him under his wing and was generous with his lessons, teaching the inexperienced actor "how to break down a script, how to think about acting, where to place the camera, and so on," much like he had done with James Dean during the making of East of Eden (1955). These proved to be valuable lessons for Beatty, who went on to produce and direct such successful films as the Best Picture-nominees Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981), the latter earning him an Oscar for Best Director.

Apart from the two leads, Kazan used East Coast, Broadway actors, many of them from the famed Actors Studio, of which he was one of the founders. Pat Hingle, for example, who played Bud's overbearing father, had worked with Kazan several times before, making a cameo appearance in On the Waterfront (1954) and providing the opening narration for Wild River (1960), as well as appearing in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. The future Mrs. Elia Kazan, Barbara Loden, was also a member of the Studio and was cast as the sexually promiscuous flapper Ginny Stamper, Bud's sister, her second film role after appearing in a small part in Wild River. Loden went on to become the first woman to write, direct and star in her own feature film, Wanda (1970), which received great acclaim at the 31st Venice International Film Festival. 

Beatty and Wood in a publicity still
According to most accounts, Wood was not particularly fond of Beatty when she first met him (apparently, she thought he "didn't bathe enough"). As filming progressed, however, Kazan noticed that something changed between them and claimed that they fell in love while he "wasn't looking," even though they were involved with other people at the time (Wood was married to Robert Wagner, while Beatty was engaged to the English actress Joan Collins). Although many asserted that their relationship did not begin during the making of Splendor in the Grass, by the time the film was released Wood and Beatty had left their significant others and were living together, a romance that lasted until the mid-1960s.

Shot entirely in New York over a period of five months, principal photography on Splendor in the Grass  wrapped up in August 1960. Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code Administration had followed Kazan's every step throughout production and proved to be even more imposing once the film was done. Upon viewing an initial version of the picture in February 1961, Shurlock argued that it could not be approved under the Code because of its "overly vivid portrayal of sex in a number of sequences." After Jack Warner asked that the film be re-edited so as to eliminate, or at least soften, the scenes that were seen as sexually explicit, Kazan spent the following months "dubbing, cutting, recutting, scoring, fighting with Warners and fighting with the Legion of Decency," until Splendor in the Grass finally passed the censors in October 1961.

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood
Reportedly, Warner Bros. did not have very high expectations for Splendor in the Grass, but the film opened to solid box-office results and received generally positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a frank and ferocious social drama that makes the eyes pop and the modest cheek burn [...] The production is in excellent color and is scenially superb." He especially applauded Wood and Beatty's performances, writing that "the authority and eloquence of the theme emerge in the honest, sensitive acting of Mr. Beatty and Miss Wood. The former, a surprising newcomer, shapes an amiable, decent, sturdy lad whose emotional exhaustion and defeat are the deep pathos in the film [...] And Miss Wood has a beauty and radiance that carry her through a role of violent passions and depressions with unsullied purity and strength. There is poetry in her performance, and her eyes in the final scene bespeak the moral significance and emotional fulfillment of this film."

Variety, on the other hand, was not so favorable in their assessment, writing: "Elia Kazan's production of William Inge's original screenplay covers a forbidding chunk of ground with great care, compassion and cinematic flair. Yet there is something awkward about the picture's mechanical rhythm. There are missing links and blind alleys within the story. Too much time is spent focusing on characters of minor significance." However, the reviewer did praise the entire cast, saying that both Wood and Beatty "deliver convincing, appealing performances"; Audrey Christie and Pat Hingle gave "truly exceptional, memorable portrayals" of Mrs. Loomis and Ace Stamper; and Fred Stewart was "excellent" as Mr. Loomis.

At the 34th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April 1962, William Inge won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while Natalie Wood received a her second nomination for Best Actress, but lost to Sophia Loren for her performance in Vittorio De Sicca's Two Women (1960). The Best Picture winner that year was Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story (1961), which also happened to star Natalie Wood.
 
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty at the Academy Awards in 1962

Splendor in the Grass was one of the very first classic films I saw (I had to see it for a class I had while studying at the University of Notthingham in 2012). Although at the time I was still generally allergic to classic films, I remember that I really enjoyed it and was mesmerized by Natalie Wood's performance. I returned to it after Gene Kelly cured me of my allergy and loved it even more. Natalie is absolutely stunning in it and even though this was Warren Beatty's film debut, he is wonderful in it as well. I love Warren Beatty. He's just so pretty to look at. I missed half the plot of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) because I was staring at him all the time. There is just something about him that grabs you from the moment you lay your eyes on him. He is sort of everything James Dean unfortunately never had the chance of being and I love that. In conclusion, Splendor in the Grass is one of those films that I recommend everyone to see. Not only is it filled with phenomenal performances, but it also explores themes, especially peer and family pressure, that are still relevant today.


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SOURCES:
Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan (1988) | Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider by Brian Neve (2009) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty by Peter Biskind (2010) | Warren Beatty: A Private Man by Suzanne Finstad (2006) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

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