Splendor in the Grass (1961)

7 08 2009

A very, very difficult film to swallow, not because it is that real (it’s rather melodramatic half of the time actually) but instead because it seems to wear its controversy so proudly on its sleeve. While there was obvious something more behind the film then just the “dark” thematic territory, it is a little hard to not see Elia Kazan and screenwriter William Inge getting all excited about all the publicity such a heavy story would undoubtedly generate. Ultimately, though, the film manages to overcome its occasional lapses in subtlety by coming out the other end with a very mature conclusion.

If nothing else, Kazan’s sprawling drama works as a perfect companion piece to Robert Rossen’s far superior effort from three years later, Lilith. In that film, Warren Beatty is once again involved with a “crazy” girl, but Rossen’s content is far more pragmatic than the glamorous tragedy of a lost first love that is depicted here. Kazan is more likely to get some tears out of the audience, but I’m not sure that is exactly a good thing. Before its final bittersweet, yet fitting and understated conclusion, the story takes a hard turn into a lane of self-parody. The emotional fits performed Beatty and Natalie Wood come awfully close to simply being too much. Wood’s breakdown in the bathroom with her mother is a perfect example of Inge trying too hard to make a sequence “harrowing” or “unflinching.” It’s easy to see where the movie is suppose to be a intimate, Cassavetes-like drama, but obviously, it never quite reaches that level.

Like Rossen’s movie, Kazan manages to ground some (but not all) of the melodrama by interjecting these little spontaneous and personal moments. There’s this odd subplot involving Beatty’s sister, played by Barbara Loden who, ironically enough, would go on to make a legitimately intimate Cassavetes-like drama in 1970 with Wanda. She, like everyone else excluding Beatty, plays her part to the most exaggerated point, but I can’t help but find her b-story as this bizarre interlude in the middle of Beatty and Wood’s much more “juicy” romance.

The high drama and tension build up, in volcano-like fashion, to a conclusion which one would anticipate to be far too physically “sad” but is instead, beautifully understated. While considering my admiration for filmmakers like Ozu and Naruse, I should probably hate a movie like this, but I can’t help but find it fascinating. Sure, it is a far cry from reality, but it manages to hit certain notes that ring true,  in spit of how serious the script takes itself. Had Kazan ended his film in any other way, I certainly wouldn’t be nearly as impressed, but I think it is to his credit that he could end a film filled with “big, serious, important” drama on a note more akin to the films that came from far East during the same time period.

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