[Review] Splendor in the Grass (Kazan, 1961)
Does Splendor in the Grass really take place in the Twenties? It doesn’t.
Everything looks like the Twenties. There’s no booze. Decadence has overrun the town. The people are indulgent, waiting for the next big paycheck. They have oil. Its pumping. Pumping. Pumping. Pumping. Pumping… Problem is — so are the kids.
The opening shot of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood getting hot in the car right next to the waterfall is trademark Kazan. Sometimes the kissing is interrupted by a shot of the giant swell of water falling off the cliff. It is a metaphor for their passion, if you didn’t take the hint. Not only is the water pumping, but the oil, too. It is a part of the story. The adults are obsessed with pumping oil (it’s a sexual relationship), and making money (which harnesses obvious sexual power).
Natalie Wood goes crazy from jealousy. Understandable. She is an infatuated young girl. Will virginity make you crazy? Is that what Kazan is saying? No. But she is deprived of a primal physical need by her parents. This repression cultivates hatred and impatience in every area of the brain. Her parents are telling her to reserve her reckless desires for marriage. Apparently this isn’t possible in Wood, and she goes bananas. She can’t stack up to the wealth of her family and her family will not allow her to have sex with Bud. The older generation traps her into madness. It is their fault.
With Bud, in a thrilling and exact performance from Warren Beatty, we see some of the same thing, but met with a strength able to overcome the foolishness of his elders.
Here lies the genius of Kazan. The story is set in 1929ish. He distances himself from the present. However, the ideas are burning with contemporary relevance. Baby Boomers start asking questions in their teens. They start looking around for some sex. Their parents try to stop the behavior. They fail. Revolution is born. The youth revolution comes from this. It begins at the home, rejecting the merit of parental guidance. In fact, I assert that Elia Kazan’s films, specifically, embody the shift from Code to Rating. He might be the crux. He makes movies without fear, encourages wild, uninhibited behavior, and domestic violence that may one day turn into the knife that sinks into Marion Crane. His energy revitalizes an otherwise bland 50′s cinema. But it is important to remember that Kazan isn’t commenting on the 1920′s. He’s commenting on the 1960′s.This is where the youth movement begins. In these attitudes.
Some brilliant qualities of the film are in its’ sound and composition. The sound is aggravating at times. It buzzes during silence. It makes noise. But it acts as the prototype for a style Altman would eventually use regularly. Background noise played an integral part in the narrative. We heard gossip. We heard secrets. No one was safe from discovery. It was a fascinating way to create dramatic irony and suspense.
As far as composition goes, Splendor was perhaps the best of all Kazan’s efforts. His primal and animalistic acting style was contained. The spaces were beautiful. The sets were full and bright. They were right without attracting attention. Inside of these neat spaces, Kazan’s animal acting created controlled and precise pandemonium. No space is safe. Hospitals, schools, hallways, everything becomes an insane asylum. Here, we see the madness in human behavior. Kazan shows us how primitive we are. How love is such a private and animalistic game. Really, it creates a Splendor in the Grass.
A brilliant and wild film. It’s sloppy, it’s gritty, and it’s great. It demands multiple viewings. It may be the apex of a magnificent career.