Maybe this is happening to you right now… maybe (if you’re older), you remember…when suddenly the kissing isn’t a kid’s game anymore, suddenly it’s wide-eyed, scary and dangerous.
—Tagline for the original poster of Splendor in the Grass
Last night, Turner Classic Movies offered a barnburner of a double feature, Picnic, with William Holden followed by one of all-time favorites, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. I have always loved this movie in the way I love so many movies of the 1950s (technically, 1961)—because they are so filled with high-pitched, even florid emotion that the films just seem to be bursting at the seams with psychosexual energy.
This is true in part with Splendor, but it’s a subject matter that could hardly be more suited to it–a teenage couple in love in 1920s Kansas. We get the feeling, from the start, Deenie (Natalie Wood) loves her handsome football player boyfriend Bud (Beatty) just a little more than he does her. (And also that he doesn’t really deserve her.) But both are suffering mightily under the cultural pressures of the day. In the case of Deenie, to be pure.
When her old-fashioned mother asks if she and Bud have “gone too far,” Deenie assures her that she has not. But, twisting with a desire so palpable she seems to be straining to stay in her skin, she asks:
“Mom… is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?”
“No nice girl does,” her mother replies.
“Doesn’t she?” Deenie tries again.
“No. No nice girl.”
You can see the shame fall on Deenie’s face. Wood’s performance so delicate. She tries again. “Didn’t you ever feel that way about Dad?” she asks.
“Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married.Then I… I just gave in because a wife has to,” her mother replies. Then, trying to be gentle, to help Deenie, she adds, ” A woman doesn’t enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.”
There are many great scenes in the movie—Deenie’s emotional collapse while reciting the Wordsworth poem from the movie’s title derives in class, the unbearably poignant final scene—but last night I was reminded of one of my favorite, smaller moments, early in the film. Deenie and Bud doing that Big Couple Walk down the high school corridor. The football hero and his adoring girlfriend.
Watching Wood here (really, just the first 60 seconds), I can’t recall a scene that so captures the fragility, pride, heat and radiance of first love. Everything that comes after is hard, ugly. But here, anything still seems possible.