Tuesday, 1 March 2011

March’s Bloodstones: Wilma Dean Loomis in Splendor in the Grass

March the 8th marks International Women’s Day and most of you US citizens probably know of the month as Women’s History Month. I’m not American, but I still like the idea of March being the month of the woman, moreover when I think that its birthstones are aquamarine and bloodstones – gems signifying courage, and March was named after Mars – the god of War. It’s an interesting task, trying to discern courageous women in cinema – regardless of how many claim that there’s a dearth of female roles available, there’s a gamut of courageous women you could think of.
As I said, courage is a strange thing and you don’t immediately identify Natalie Wood’s brilliant Deanie with the typical encapsulations of female “hear-me-roar” courage on screen, she’s hardly combative. In fact, if you glance at the plot – a girl seemingly runs crazy after having sex – it sounds decidedly misogynistic and uncourageous. I like to think of Splendor in the Grass in the same way that I’d think of a William Blake poem – ostensibly supporting what seems like so messed up morals, while all the while actually subverting. The attitudes of women are an important part of William Inge’s screenplay. There’s that scene I love where Deanie and her mother are talking about sex and she says,
“Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married. 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. ”. 
It’s an unintentionally hilarious (but conversely, terribly disturbing line) and it makes the morals on which Splendor in the Grass is built seem sort of dated. But, for all its datedness the way that Inge and Kazan examine the age old theme of gender relations is quite interesting.
Like, Bud’s (Warren Beatty’s brilliant debut) sister – played to beautiful, albeit hammy, perfection by Barbara Loden. The film suggests, but never ascertains, that this is what the future holds for Deanie if she refuses to wise up and accept her role in life. Of course, that’s not really true – because, for all the madness that she endures she still emerges with a semblance of grace at the film’s end. And, it's not really madness that she undergoes in reality. I call it Natalie at her best, because she so often avoids the most obvious ways of making Deanie ridiculously crazy. Which takes me to the other important William of the film – Wordsworth. It is his poem that gives the film’s its name. It’s probably wrong to read too much feminism – if any at all – in Splendor in the Grass, but there’s something decidedly close to liberalness in that final shot watching Deanie drive away.
Natalie Wood has an inherent “superior” nature to her, that’s not quite condescending but still a little lofty (perfect example: the entire last half hour of Love with the Proper Stranger). And the look on her face as Deanie meets Bud for the last time is striking on so many levels. Not only because Bud looks like the guy who killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but that easily discernable look on Deanie’s face as she things that she could have had this life with him, then accepting that she doesn’t and then a sort of elation (in Natalie’s own subtle way) that she doesn’t. One isn’t naturally inclined to identify surviving with being courageous, but I like to think of Deanie as more than just a little courageous. And how can you not love Natalie in her greatest performance?
Is Deanie an appropriate start to courageous cinematic women?

1 comment:

TomS said...

This was a beautiful performance in a film that has moments that continue to smolder in my memory...Hot, affecting, and disturbing... Nice essay!
Courageous? Absolutely, especially in her surroundings and at that moment in time for women.