Wait, did I say teenagers? Yeah, I did. And honestly, that’s one of this movie’s biggest problems. At the time this movie was made, both Warren Beatty (making his film debut here) and Natalie Wood were in their late 20s. And while I know it’s traditional to cast older actors as teenagers, the entire cast of this movie is simply too old to in any way resemble teenagers, and Wood especially just looks silly when she’s overky cheefully bouncing up and down every time she greets her girlfriends.
Maybe it was the desire to hire actors who director Elia Kazan felt could carry the emotional weight of the story he wanted to tell. Perhaps it was, as is often the case, simply the desire to avoid having to make the necessary concessions that come along with hiring more age-appropriate actors. I don’t know. What I do know is that, despite the strength of their performance, the fact that neither of the leads could shed the maturity of both their age and skill really undercuts any sense that these characters belong in a high school classroom, or that they should be wearing their hearts so vividly upon their sleeves.
Maybe that’s the reason this supposed tearjerker left me far from moved by the plight of its main characters? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s simply that the entire endeavor seems overwrought and that the emotions and motivations of Beatty’s Bud Stamper and Wood’s “Deanie” Loomis veer so strongly from scene to scene that it’s really hard to figure out not only where they actually are emotionally, but to really buy into their frustrated love plights.
Taking just one example, when we’re first introduced to the couple, they’re making out in Bud’s car, and we have Deanie telling Bud “No, stop, we mustn’t, we mustn’t”, which is met with utter frustration by a car-door-slamming Bud. Not long after, in a scene that remains rather shocking, and I suspect was even moreso back in 1961, We see Bud forcing Deanie to her knees into a position that seems one zipper away from him forcing her to… well, I suspect you get the idea. Though Bud eventually backs off from this, the scene ends with Deanie telling Bud she really will do anything he wants her to, because she loves him so much.
And so it goes, back and forth, back and forth, and maybe all of this “I will, I won’t” type thing is supposed to mirror the over-the-top rampaging hormones of the teenage years, and it certainly isn’t helped by Deanie’s mother who keeps telling her that good girls don’t let boys touch them, much less have sex with them, nor by Bud’s father, who encourages him to – if he’s that frustrated by Deanie’s continuous refutations – find a “different kind of girl” to sow his wild oats with.
By the way, I should take this moment to note that though I was somewhat less than impressed by both Beatty and Wood in this, since they really overact a lot of their scenes, with Beatty in particular not just chewing the scenery, but seeming to look around for even more to chomp upon every chance he gets, I did enjoy seeing Pat Hingle in the cast as Bud’s mostly single minded oil-baron father. Not that is performance is any more restrained than anyone else in the film, but at least he does seem to understand that his role is ridiculously over the top, something the younger stars never quite seem to grasp.
The film does deserve credit for (spoiler warning, I suppose) not giving it’s characters a “they lived happily ever after” ending, which is rather satisfying, but, though the film, like it’s stars is always quite beautiful, it never seems to know just what it wants, nor how to properly express itself.
- Splendor in the Grass (lifevsfilm.com)