For Natalie Wood: A new look at a corny old Splendor

Annex – Wood, Natalie (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice)_01

By JERRY TALLMER | This past Saturday night I turned on the tube for no reason at all and was brought up short by the opening titles of a motion picture I hadn’t seen in thirty or forty years. Somebody at Turner Classic Movies — Ted Turner maybe? — had had the dazzlingly bad taste to regale us, in the shadow of the re-death of Natalie Wood, with Elia Kazan’s 1961 “Splendor in the Grass.”

For the next couple of hours I couldn’t move, could hardly breathe.

This is the movie in which, en route to nervous breakdown, lovely Deanie Loomis, the good girl whose mind and body hunger to be a lot less good, twice attempts to drown herself, once in a bathtub (I’d forgotten that), once in a pool at the foot of a waterfall.

We’ve lately heard a whole lot all over again about Natalie Wood’s lifelong (life short?) fear of darkness and drowning.

Way back when it had first come upon us, I had thought “Splendor in the Grass” a pretty sappy piece of goods, Kazan plus William Inge (screenplay), plus kitsch kitsch kitsch, as Marlene Dietrich would say. All these overgrown, post-adolescent, supposed-to-be high-school people hung up on sex and virginity and the Big O — in Kansas, yet — ah there, Dorothy! — while exploding in pieces all around them is the all but totally ignored real world.

Which, come to think of it, is part of the film’s subtext.

And now, all these years later, all of that drops away, and what remains, for me, is one exquisite, scared, doomed Deanie / Natalie groping her way, haltingly, in the classroom, word by glowing word, to the deep regenerative ever-recurring truth and beauty of:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind

It matters not that Warren Beatty, then 24, a year older than Ms. Wood (who had, however, starred in “Miracle on 34th Street” when she was 9), is wooden as a stick as Bud, the rich boy and football hero with whom Deanie does and does not want to go all the way. (Don’t worry, Beatty will presently open up as actor, director, producer and citizen. And Natalie Wood will go on to be even more desirable opposite Steve McQueen in a movie about semi-grown-up romance, “Love With the Proper Stranger.”)

What was even more heart-tugging for yours truly, gripped by the tube last Saturday night, was all the old familiar faces and talents from the Kazan / Actors’ Studio workshop: Pat Hingle as Bud’s roaring, bullying father; Audrey Christie as Deanie’s stoical mother; Barbara Loden (subsequently a Mrs. Elia Kazan) in a slambang performance as Bud’s hell-raising sister; Fred Stewart as the other father; gorgeous Zohra Lampert as the girl Bud actually marries; and Crystal Field — yes, our own Crystal Field of Off Broadway’s Theater for the New City — as one of Deanie’s high-school chums.

“Splendor in the Grass” first came upon us in 1961. One evening in the summer of that year or the next, I sat on a bench under the great old tree in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, across the way from the building where Uta Hagen lived. And there, under the persuasions of a Village maiden and, well, a little grass, I looked up at every single leaf of the thousands on that great tree, and for the first time in my life grasped what Wordsworth was telling us about immortality.

With or without the waters off Catalina Island.