Splendor in the Grass is a prestigious, top-of-the-line, sensitively-handled melodramatic literalization of the axiom “If you touch yourself too much, you’ll go crazy.” In screenwriter William Inge’s Christian-toned sex-itch parable, Natalie Wood plays Deanie Loomis, a virginal high school girl in rural Kansas whose desire to let the steam out of her jock boyfriend Bud Stamper’s trousers is discouraged by her chastity-advocating mother. On the other side of the tracks, Bud (Warren Beatty, in his first movie appearance) is catching hell from his capitalistic father because Deanie represents the town’s middle class. Standing on the fringes of both the Stamper family and the town’s tolerance for wayward willfulness is Bud’s sister Ginny, a Charleston-stepping, liquor-swilling, sashay-swaying hellcat who gets publicly dressed down by the Stamper patriarch even as he all but tells Bud to go sew his wild oats.
As directed by Elia Kazan, who memorably turned the rape of Blanche DuBois into, well, something a little less easily-defined as rape, Splendor in the Grass often calls to mind Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, especially with Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) playing Ginny as though she were Marylee Hadley’s kid sister. Sirk’s grudge match between naughty and nice suggested his sympathies were with the former, but only subversively. In contrast, Kazan wavers little in his belief that Deanie and Bud should stop squawking and jump each other’s bones already. (It prefigures the free-love 1960s as much as Sirk’s movie attacks the witch-hunt 1950s.) Inge’s scenario unravels alarmingly once the two would-be lovers start to drift apart thanks to Deanie’s nervous breakdown and the simultaneous (almost psychically connected) market crash of 1929, but the first half of the film is a tour de force of deferred urges, contortion acts of awkward intimacy, and the thrill of adolescence.
Kazan and company were clearly grooming Warren Beatty as a fresh new Method-acting Boy Wonder, and his performance is a genuine oddity: He works against his own rigid, tortured muscular presence by refusing to act on impulses where Brando would. (Like David Niven tearing James Dean apart.) But it was Natalie Wood who rightfully earned the Academy Award nomination for, as much as anything, whining like a cat in heat and moaning in a steaming hot bathtub while her unbroken hymen vibrates like a tuning fork.