didn’t you ever?

by Megan Abbott

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.

11 Comments to “didn’t you ever?”

  1. One of my favorite Kazan pictures. Like most of his films, filled with beautifully acted scenes. “East of Eden” gets to me like few movies. “Wild River” too, where Lee Remick just blows me away with her passionate yearning for love. If you want a strange surprise sometime, check out the darkly beautiful film, “Wanda”, written and directed by Barbara Loden, Kazan’s ex-wife and the actress who plays the nympho sister in “Splendor”. Made in 1970, it’s the story of a homeless woman and her very bad choices. Sorry to get off-track, but here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067961/

  2. Ah, yes, WANDA! It screened in NY last year–there’s a new restored version–but I missed it, alas.

  3. Great article. Thanks. I didn’t know much about Ms. Loden other than her marriage to Kazan and her few film appearances. I hope to see this restored version of “Wanda” soon. You should, too. It is a very personal crime story, after all.

  4. Never having seen the movie, I am still going to suggest that our next joint project should be some kind of examination of female sexual desire in pop culture!

    • that the kind of project that could take a lifetime!

      • Perfect! We’ll always have a fun project to work on together, yay! If we start now we can wrap it up in the old folk’s home! Let’s start with Eve…

  5. Sara and Megan are indecent trollops! Sex? You two should be baking!

  6. Baking! Well, we’d probably make more money than writing…

  7. SPLENDOR was a really good movie, and the leads were great, but what I remember most about it is Pat Hingle’s giving the performance of his career as Warren Beatty’s father.

  8. Oh, gosh, Graham, isn’t he riveting? One of the things I love about that movie is the rich round of character actor performances–his most of all, but also both of Natalie Wood’s parents, and the teacher in this scene.

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