Splendor in the Grass is a classic Hollywood melodrama featuring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first film). The tone of this piece begins with a sweetness that is too hard to ignore in terms of a silver screen romance – something difficult to believe until a third of the way through the movie when French New Wave techniques are mashed up with method acting and an incredible screenplay that sends the characters hurtling dangerously toward a reality of the consequences of repression that “twists people in monstrous, dysfunctional directions” (Martin). This ultimately makes the audience perceive motion picture cliches that never arrive – as we kept guessing the next beat in more and more ridiculous soap opera tropes, Inge’s screenplay begged us to ignore them with each new, more believable, more realistic twist. Ultimately, we ended up with what was simply an unexpectedly great film for the ages, and the performances kept up with it as it neared its tragic and acceptable conclusions.
This was a movie where the narrative you think is unfolding takes a very unexpected turn. It begins as a typical teenage love story, a Romeo and Juliet from different sides of the tracks (rich vs. poor). From the beginning of the film, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood’s performances are captivating. Their characters are endearing and innocent. Wood’s transformation from the beginning of the film to the end is captivating. My heart broke for her. I found the treatment of teenage sex and mental illness throughout this movie to be very interesting, with multiple plot points occurring with both the main characters and the minor characters (Bud’s sister)
The film’s title is taken from a stanza from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality‘ by English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
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…
This poem is featured toward both the middle and the very ending of the film, emphasizing that we “find strength in what remains behind.”
I really enjoyed this, and I was quite surprised as the film progressed. Where at the beginning I expected the same things to happen that I have seen countless other times in film, it became clear as the horrors of the character’s choices unfolded that this was going in a direction that stripped it of the Hollywood tropes and led us down a road that delivered the audience to a conclusion structured in deep realism. This striking compromise seems revolutionary for the era, and to witness its American gestation in this film was splendid.
In many ways, with the exception of the middle of the film, this movie was a lot like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – a favorite of mine that is also on the list. I was surprised to find that Cherbourg was made after Splendor; after watching this it felt like I had wished it was made first since the themes and structure are so similar. Regardless, it was a pleasure to see how Inge unfolded these realistic elements to balance the audience’s expectations with reality. A well written, well-performed script that can easily be considered an American classic.