Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Sex, A Small Town and Elia Kazan

Had he been alive yesterday, would have been the birthday of the great Elia Kazan. So in honour of this I decided to feature a write-up of one of his films which also is a part of my top 100 – Splendor in the Grass. Splendor in the Grass is a movie about sex…well about as much as a movie in 1961 could be about sex. The film is from the sixties, but the story is not archaic. Deanie and Bud are the ‘it’ couple at their high school. Deanie is a good girl and the film opens one night happening upon a passionate make out session in the back of Bud’s car. Yes, it’s the sixties, but this film is credited with the first onscreen French kiss, just so you know. So it’s that kind of movie. Of course Deanie isn’t sure where she wants this to lead and she rebuffs her boyfriend’s overt advances. A sexually frustrated Bud drives her home. Deanie and Bud are from opposite sides of the tracks. Deanie is the daughter of a weak store owner controlled by his wife. Bud is the son of the most prestigious family in the area. His sister is notoriously lost cause even having an abortion back in her day, so the family’s hopes rest on him.
The basic conflict of the first half is the ‘will they, won’t they’ debate. It’s clear that Bud and Deanie want to have sex. And with how Elia Kazan shoots the film it seems there would be no better solution but for them to just do it. But this is the sixties, and Deanie’s mother is nothing if not clear. She tells her daughter “Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married. And, then, I—I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” How incredibly primeval. It’s downright scary. Needless to say, they don’t have sex and when at his father’s advice Bud finds a girl to satisfy those physical pleasures…well, it doesn’t turn out too good. Especially for Deanie.
Natalie Wood is on fire in this film. She earned an Academy Award for Leading Actress and the film also won the Award for Original Screenplay. I figure actually that Wood should have won the Oscar, though I haven’t seen the winning performance. What’s even more unfortunate though, is the lack of love for this film in the main categories. Eliza Kazan is ignored and it’s not difficult to see why. Not only does this film push the envelope when it comes to sex in the movies [Boy, if they could see us now.], but this is a high school flick and we all know the Academy must maintain its standards. But even they weren’t giving it a nod for Best Picture, a Best Director nod was wholly deserved.
It’s impressive that this was Beatty’s first performance. As good as his directing work is I always think he’s a better actor. He and Wood are sweltering together and no doubt the audience is affected by those two hours of sexual tension. I may be incredibly wanton but I can’t help but think had they just jumped into bed Deanie and Bud would have been way better off. Kudos to Elia Kazan for directing one of the few (only?) high school films where it seems that having sex really would have solved the problems.
The title of the film is inspired by one of the lengthy Wordsworth odes. The famous lines read “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;”. Every time these lines were mentioned in the film there seemed to be an especially sad feeling about. The name of the film is no accident. As that last shot of the film falls and Deanie rides off in the car, we know that she and Bud will never experience those moments of splendour in the grass. And William Inge’s screenplay is bitterly ironic. The comfort that remains is inadequate at best.
English spelling ‘Splendour’. Film name - American spelling ‘Splendor’


Wayne B. said...

Nice write-up. makes me want to rent this ASAP

Alex in Movieland said...

I haven't seen this in years! but I liked it a lot when I first saw it.

when I think of Elia Kazan the 1st thought I have is of the communist incident... auch.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Oh geez, Alex. You and the whole world. I hate that. I always hate Arthur Miller a little for his outspoken hatred of Kazan...I always felt bad for the guy. One good thing about the Communist incident is that it inspired On the Waterfront, so it's not all bad.

Iza Larize said...

This is one of my favorite films of all time. Elia Kazan was one of those very few film directors who were able to make his actors ACT. Warren Beatty was good in this film. But, "Splendor in the Grass" is Natalie Wood's show. A timeless story.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

elia kazan was an outstanding director and natalie was awesome. imagine she played Deenie and maria all in one year. talented indeed.