Sunday, December 18, 2011

Splendor in the Grass

Elia Kazan, 1961 (8.6*)
Ranked #1003 on our 2011 update of the Top Ranked 1000 Films on the Net, all polls.

Not considered one of Kazan’s best, certainly not when compared to On the Waterfront (1951) or A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) bw, or even up against A Face in the Crowd (1957), or his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), this film of a 50’s high school romance still stands up well today, and seems to speak to a universal audience from any era. This list of films shows what a great director Kazan was, if you can get past the HUAC hearings and just judge his art on its own merit.

Warren Beatty made his film debut as a popular, wealthy, and handsome high school senior, Bud, of course also a star athlete – the quintessential American dream in a man, and for his film debut, gives a sensitive and believable performance. He was the younger brother of actress Shirley MacLaine, and before this was best known as the boyfriend of Tuesday Weld on The Life and Loves of Dobie Gillis on tv, playing a popular, wealthy, and handsome high schooler in that romantic comedy.

Natalie Wood plays his less wealthy girlfriend, Deenie, from the wrong side of the tracks to Bud's bigoted, narrow-minded, capitalist father, honestly portrayed by Pat Hingle in his most memorable role - he was so good you wanted to hit him with a baseball bat. I don’t think it was Beatty’s debut that surprised people, it was the full-bodied performance by Natalie Wood, in what for me is a career-making performance that proved she was more than just another pretty face, and she was undoubtably that.

In this story, amid the pangs of youthful desire, Bud is first having his advances denied by Deenie, who, of course, has marriage in mind and doesn’t want to be a ‘bad girl’. Then we see Bud’s slutty older sister who gets drunk, then literally has men lining up for a chance with her. We begin to get the idea that this is a more complex film romance than most. Later, when Deenie finally wants to go the distance because she fears she may lose Bud, he backs off, no doubt psychologically damaged by his dysfunctional family. As a result, Deenie has your standard teenage nervous breakdown.

This movie grew on me over time, and though not Kazan’s best, it’s still better than 95% of the movie romances, thanks to the power of William Inge’s original play and Kazan’s great touch with actors. His films produced more Oscar® winning performances is history than anyone except William Wyler – Wyler leads 13 to 8, so even Kazan is a distant second to the great Wyler.

I find this film to always be honestly touching, and it speaks to those who did grow up on the wrong side of the tracks (for me, right next to both the railroad tracks and an old cotton mill). Like many Kazan films, it says a lot about class bigotry and alienation within our society, which is especially tough for teenagers to deal with because they’re just gaining the experiences that progress them into adulthood, and don’t have the wisdom or patience to withstand the prejudices of adults that are often taught to their children as well.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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