Wilma Dean "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) is a teen aged girl experiencing trying desires in a trying era. In 1928 flappers were in full bloom but in states like Kansas and towns outside the big cities, teenagers like Deanie and her boyfriend Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) are subject to a different set of rules. Both follow their parents advice reluctantly and with serious consequences. Deanie’s mother asks Deanie to resist whereas Bud’s father suggests he find another kind of girl with whom to satisfy his desires. Deanie and Bud are reduced to pawns in their individual parents game. Deanie's mother wants Deanie to remain a respectable girl, a girl that Bud, who is the scion of the most prosperous family in town, would marry, should marry. However, Bud’s father, Ace (Pat Hingle), has big plans for his son. With the typical nouveau riche aspirations for his male offspring, Ace wants his son to go to Yale, get a fine education, follow him in business and live the life he never had. When he suggests Bud find another girl, he does so in hopes that he will drop Deanie who Bud has expressed his desire to marry. Bud’s situation is doubly bad in that his parents have directed all their hopes on him since his sister Ginny (Barbara Loden), turned flapper in every sense of the word. She is sexually promiscuous, smokes, drinks, has had an abortion and a failed marriage.
Bud becomes more conflicted the more Deanie refuses to take the next step. He loves her and wants to marry her however, he has agreed to his father’s wishes to finish college first and he doesn’t think he can wait a few more years in order to consummate their relationship. So, Bud finds another girl in their school willing to become sexually involved. Things come to a head when Bud must fight off potential rapists to defend his sister’s honor when she drunkenly misbehaves at a party. He tells Deanie he can’t see her anymore and when Deanie suspects what he’s been doing she tries giving him what she thinks he desires. But Bud sees her as something more pure and does not want to spoil her outside of marriage. After a failed attempt to win him back, Deanie is driven mad and instiutionalized.
In an odd twist, this forces her parents to sell their stock in Ace’s oil company right before the Crash of '29 in order to pay for her institutionalization, saving them from the worst of the Great Depression. However, Bud's family loses its fortune leading to Ace’s suicide. Ginny is dead from an automobile accident, and Bud’s mother lives in squalor. This enables Bud to quit Yale which he was never interested in or good at and take up ranching, a desire he had before his father’s aspirations got in the way.
After two years, Deanie is released from the asylum and on the verge of marrying a doctor she met while inside and moving to Cincinnati. But first she must see Bud and make sure that she is making the right decision. Bud is now married to Angelina (Zohra Lampert) an Italian girl he met while at Yale. They have one child and are expecting another. The reunion is brief and fraught with unspoken desires and heavy regret but both Bud and Deanie see that they now have new paths to follow.
This was a powerfully emotional film with both Wood and Beatty giving exceptional performances. In this day and age it may be hard for some people to reconcile with what the big deal of the film was however, I found myself able to relate. The acting and plot so draws you in that you have this definite sense of claustrophobia throughout. I kept trying to imagine how I would be able to handle myself if I was in either Deanie or Ginny’s situation. It was a mad era the 20’s, a time when old institutions and morals butted heads with new ones, a time of much confusion and soul searching. I think Splendor in The Grass captured that feeling perfectly. Kudos to Kazan! Definitely and must see!
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