"Splendor in the Grass"

Elia Kazan's romantic classic panders to teenage angst; that doesn't mean it won't break you up.

By Charles Taylor
July 28, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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"Splendor in the Grass"
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood
Warner Bros.; widescreen and full frame
Extras: None

Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" is an attempt to outdo his own "East of Eden" as a spectacle of overwrought teen emotion. You can see everything that's wrong with these movies -- the sloppy emotionalism, the primer Freudianism, the way all the adult characters have been put into the role of villains -- and still be affected, even shaken up, by them. Like nobody else, Kazan succeeded in capturing the overheated, self-pitying dramatization so near and dear to the teenage heart. That he pandered to that self-pity seems a small price to pay for the beauty and charisma of the young people he put on-screen -- James Dean in "East of Eden" and here Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his screen debut) as a pair of high school sweethearts in late-1920s Kansas.


William Inge's script is a position paper for "understanding." Beatty and Wood are torn apart by the hypocrisy surrounding what nice girls don't do and what all boys can't wait to do. The movie is both crude (in its depiction of the corrupt values of the older characters) and lyrical (in the scenes of the young would-be lovers). But that occasional crudeness is part of its power, and the pang the film leaves you with is earned. Like "The Way We Were," this is one of those romantic classics you can admit to being broken up over without embarrassment.

So much has been written about Wood as a bad actress that it's startling to remember how touching she could be. You'd have to be very hardhearted not to be affected at least a little by the scene in which she breaks down in her English class while reading Wordsworth. There's another reason her performance works: She really does look like the prettiest girl in school. Beatty gives the first example of the romantic tentativeness that was to become his hallmark; his genius here is playing the Big Man on Campus with an almost feminine softness. Beatty and Wood are treated with tender care by Kazan, and whatever flaws there are in the actors' performances, he makes sure the characters come through as personalities. He was lucky enough to work with collaborators whose immaculate taste kept his gush in check -- namely, composer David Amram and cinematographer Boris Kaufman.

This DVD offers the film in both widescreen and reformatted (or full-frame) versions. But with the delicate hues of Kaufman's work, why be content with anything less than the big picture? And you'll have to be content without any extras, such as the original theatrical trailer. It's advertised on the package, but Warner Home Video tells me there was no room for it on the disc, and that it simply forgot to remove the line from the jacket copy.


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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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