Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dead Air Feminist Movie Series: Splendor in the Grass

Yes folks, I am bringing my considerable old-cinema-geekery here to share with all of you.

I have written here before about how I often feel guilty for watching politically-incorrect old movies... and I decided it was time to talk about the vintage films that blazed trails for women, however flawed these movies might be.

The problem with labeling an old movie "feminist": Invariably, something about it won't be feminist at all, and may even be anti-feminist. Revolution takes a long time. A movie that might be revolutionary in one sense, can be incredibly backward and oppressive in another.

Thus, I offer the following series with strong caveats. These are OLD movies. However, feminists will discover that in most cases, once you start watching these, you will be unable to stop.

First movie in our series:


I have seen this movie dozens of times. Dozens. And I have some issues with it, but it is nonetheless the finest (only?) example of a movie that dared to discuss the constraints on white middle-class female sexuality and present them as overall negatives. Being a lady SUCKS, and William Inge and Elia Kazan actually illustrated it for us in no uncertain terms. The movie takes a stand.

The setting is the late 1920s in Kansas. High school kids Natalie Wood (Deanie) and Warren Beatty (Bud) (*also together in real life during the making of the film; one reason the chemistry just crackles) are all hot and bothered, but of course, not allowed to have sex. And that's it. That's the whole story--but what a story it is. What happens when kids are not allowed to have sex? This is the answer to "true love waits" and needs to be shown right alongside the fundamentalist propaganda.

Football star Bud gets restless; he is, after all, Warren Beatty (one of those instances wherein an actor's real-life reputation is useful for the narrative). Bud wants a girl, he even feels bloody ENTITLED to a girl, but alas, Deanie is far too nice to put out. He therefore takes up with the school's "bad" girl... and as a direct result, our sweet Deanie starts to crack up.

It is to Natalie Wood's credit that she is able to gaze in a starry-eyed fashion at the numerous, hot football-photos of Beatty that wallpaper her bedroom, and somehow communicate to us her sexual desire without saying a word... this isn't some teenybopper merely sighing at pin-ups. This is serious stuff; she WANTS him. And when he disses her, there is an amazing scene of Natalie taking a bath--one of the veritable triumphs of Wood's career. Director Elia Kazan made her put her hands over her face, exposing her wrist, which had been deformed as a child; it was broken and never set properly. She was extremely self-conscious about her wrist, and always wore very expensive, clunky bracelets to hide it. (Good lord, did anyone bother to look at gorgeous Natalie's WRIST? HELLO?!?! Amazing what beautiful people worry about! But note even in the movie poster above, the clunky bracelet. Go back through Natalie's life, and just look at all the bracelets. She was never without one.)

Natalie, a child star, had been hanging with method actors like James Dean, and felt inferior to them. She wanted to break through, but was frightened too. She knew what that meant. Kazan challenged her with the scene. In his biography, Kazan wrote that Wood was supposed to be naked and vulnerable and showing her wrist was the equivalent of that for her. He pressed her until she agreed to do it.

Of course, who notices her wrist? I have run it back, and only then do I notice, but only because I am looking for it and I know about her self-consciousness. But it is when she covers her face that her acting takes off; Kazan knew his job very well. While Deanie is in the bathtub, carrying on about losing Bud, her mother suddenly catches on, more or less. (Deanie's mother was played by fabulous character actress Audrey Christie).

And her mother asks, with lowered voice and obvious trepidation: "Did Bud... spoil you?"

Natalie flips out, covers her face, jumps out of the bathtub and becomes hysterical: Did he SPOIL me, Mama?! No, mom! I'm not spoiled! I'm not spoiled, mom! I'm just as fresh and virginal like the day I was born, mom!

It's a great moment and a great scene. Likewise, when Natalie tarts herself up like the "bad" girl, Bud is jarred and confused instead of becoming attracted: "But Deanie, you're a nice girl!" he protests, shocked when she puts the moves on him. Natalie replies, "I'm not! I'm not a nice girl," and Bud responds by asking her where her pride is.

Natalie loses it again: "My pride?! My pride?! I don't have any pride!"

Yes, we know what she means. Suddenly, the untenable position of the "nice" girl who felt sexual feelings and dared to act on them, is laid completely bare.

And Natalie/Deanie completely cracks up, swimming out to a waterfall and nearly drowning (which is pretty creepy in retrospect, since Wood hated water, couldn't swim, and her actual cause-of-death was drowning). There is an extended psychiatric interlude for Deanie, while Bud's dad jumps out a window after the stock market crash. There is some excellent class-awareness in this movie, as we might expect from a famous almost-blacklisted director. And then, a very nice ending, which I won't spoil for you, but one you MUST SEE.

Many people feel the movie did not make as much money as it could have, if the ending had been different. Suffice to say, the ending is not a typical Hollywood happy ending... but is poetic, real, and beautiful.

You all must see it!

More movies to come... stay tuned, movie fans. :)


CrackerLilo said...

Okay. You completely sold me on tracking that down and seeing that one sports-free night. I've actually never seen that movie. I do remember that the title character of Judy Blume's book "Deenie" is named after Natalie Wood's character, plus Paula Cole has a line about how her beloved "makes me feel like Splendor in the Grass" in her very, very needy and horny song "Feelin' Love." But I never saw the movie itself, and you got me feeling like there is a gap in my education! Thanks!

YogaforCynics said...

Wow...that's actually Warren Beatty? And in 1961? Honestly, I wasn't aware he existed before Bonnie and Clyde...okay, obviously, if I'd given some thought to it, I'd have realized that he must have been alive somewhere, and probably acting on some level, but...y'know...

Ultimately, I don't think the fundies are too concerned about history...or, if they are, they don't care, because their puritanical lust to punish transgressors overrules petty concerns about what actually works...

Marion said...

I loved this movie. It made me feel it was ok to have these wild feelings...sexual ones...which no one in my family ever acknowledged. I was one of those who watched it over and over and then never watched it again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Thanks, dear Daisy, for bringing it into the daylight again. I'll have to find it and watch it once more. Great memories are associated with that movie for me!

Anonymous said...

Beatty and Wood were not an item during the filming of Splendor. In fact their relationship was quite strained. It wasn't until a year after the movie was shot, when they were contracted to do a promotional tour for its release (well after Beatty had shot "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" abroad with Vivien Leigh) that Beatty and Wood, then already separated from Robert Wagner, fell in love and became a couple.

JoJo said...

I'd rent this but Brian will be panting at Natalie Wood (like he does when we watch Rebel w/o a Cause) so maybe I'll take a pass.... lol

edith said...

I don't hear many people making mention of this film. I have seen it a few times. I remember the feeling I was left with after seeing it in the early seventies, on an old black and white t v. The ending definitely fits the "life is what happens when you're making other plans", category. The ending was just such a poetic comment about the loneliness of existence, love and commitment and how ironic outcomes can be.

I remember two other films I saw around this time that left me with a similar feeling - Picnic and Will Penny (yes, I know, Charlton Heston?)

I love many of Kazan's films - East of Eden, On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, Streetcar Named Desire - even though he was resented for the testimony he gave, against his peers, before the HUAC.

I remember how scandalized my mother was that one of our neighbors was letting her daughter see Baby Doll. That's a vivid childhood memory of mine from 1957. We used to have to stand up and take the Legion of Decency Oath at church every year.

I'm looking forward to seeing what your next selections will be, Daisy.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Edith, I had forgotten the HUAC thing and hurriedly added "almost blacklisted" to my piece, but you busted me first! I apologize for the error.

Also, Anon, thanks for correction on Beatty/Wood's affair... but I still think their chemistry crackles, particularly in that living-room make-out scene, early in the film Mercy! :P

edith said...

Well, I should apologize for starting so many sentences in my last post with "I". :)

Maura said...

Oh my God, this movie! I've seen it so many times, i.e. dozens, I could probably conjure up every word of dialogue if I had to. I love it so much. Besides the fact that I cry my eyes out at the ending every time I see it (the only ending the movie could have had in order to tell the truth), I've always been struck by how it addresses female sexuality and societal pressures. Not just through Deenie's frustrations, but through Juanita and Bud's sister. Every time I watch it, I see something new.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Maura, you notice I left out the fact that I sob my heart out too! ;) I am an objective reviewer!

Maura said...

I was wondering if you sobbed too, Daisy, but didn't want to be nosy about it. It's a personal thing, you know? :o)

Anonymous said...

Beatty and Wood didn't become a real romantic pair until one full year after finishing shooting "Splendor in the Grass", when they were sent on a promotional tour together. By that time, Wood was already separated from Wagner and Beatty's engagement to Joan Collins had sort of withered to an end. In the year that lay between, Beatty was abroad filming "The Roman spring of Mrs. Stone" with Vivien Leigh (and Joan Collins present on the set, most of the time).