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. :)