Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Moaning on the Prairie

Ophelia of the Prairie. Natalie Wood
What the hell is Splendor in the Grass (1961) about? I’ve seen it twice (no more, please) and I still can’t ascertain its point. There’s a confused, self-destructive high school girl (Natalie Wood) who may or may not love the sensitive, troubled jock at school (Warren Beatty), but she’s in the perpetual throes of a nervous breakdown triggered by — unfulfilled sexual longings? — and unable to articulate anything beyond a sort of pubescent quavering and moaning. Directed by Elia Kazan as if this were serious stuff, the movie frames all its dress-ripping nuttiness as if it were a grand passion in a verismo opera; Kazan and the screenwriter, William Inge, hype virtually every scene with turbulent Freudianism and volcanic neuroses. Teens are yelling at parents, parents are yelling at teens, teens are yelling at doctors, police are yelling at parents — everybody’s frustrated and unhappy out there in Small Town, USA. Nobody tells a joke or eats a good, satisfying meal or plays a little fetch with the dog. They’re too busy gnashing their teeth.

The movie, pitched for soapy hysteria, is both an idealization of misunderstood youth and a criticism of the impetuous promiscuity of high schoolers. Is Deanie, who goes mad, supposed to be a female James Dean in East of Eden (1955)? A teenage Blanche DuBois? Ophelia of the Prairie? The Inge screenplay won an Oscar, but it has much bigger problems than that. Incidentally, Phyllis Diller plays the notorious speakeasy owner Texas Guinan — she may be the stablest person in the cast — and Inge himself plays a reverend.

No comments:

Post a Comment