Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Films of Warren Beatty: Splendor in the Grass starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, directed by Elia Kazan, written by William Inge (1961)

Poster for Splendor in the Grass, 1961. I like how Warren Beatty is described as "a very special star!"

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, 1961. Don't go too far, you kids!

Director Elia Kazan on the set of Splendor in the Grass, with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, 1960. You know, just directing shirtless, like you do.

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, circa 1962. Natalie Wood had such great style, and she was so incredibly beautiful.

This is such a cute picture of Warren and Natalie. Unfortunately, they weren't this happy all of the time.
The first time moviegoers got a glimpse of Warren Beatty, he was making out with Natalie Wood in a car. It was a fitting entrance for Beatty, who became known as a legendary ladies’ man. 

Beatty made his movie debut in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, starring opposite Wood in a story about a teenage romance. In Splendor, set in Kansas in 1928 and 1929, Beatty played Bud Stamper, a standout athlete, and Wood played Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis. Bud’s family is very rich, thanks to oil, while Deanie’s father is a grocer. Unfortunately, both Bud and Deanie get terrible advice about sex and relationships from their parents. Although Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) wants Deanie to have the financial security that Bud can give her, she is horrified at the thought that Deanie and Bud might be going too far. As she says to Deanie at the beginning of the movie, “Boys don’t respect a girl they can go all the way with. Boys want a nice girl for a wife.” Deanie asks, “Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?” Her mother’s tart response is “No nice girl does…She just lets her husband near her in order to have children.” Yikes. 

In the Stamper household, Bud can barely get a word in edgewise with his overbearing, Babbitt-like father Ace (Pat Hingle). Ace is worried that a girl like Deanie is only interested in Bud for his money, and will try to trap him into marriage by letting Bud get her pregnant. Ace’s solution to that problem is telling Bud that he should continue to date Deanie, but get his rocks off with slutty girls. 

Splendor in the Grass is full of sexual tension, as both Bud and Deanie want to have sex, but they know that “good” boys and “nice” girls don’t have sex before marriage. The temptation leads to turmoil and illness, as Bud stops seeing Deanie, and she attempts to drown herself, which leads to her parents sending her to a psychiatric hospital. Bud and Deanie marry other people, and they are left with the memory of “the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.”

Splendor is a superb movie, written by William Inge, one of the major American playwrights of the 1950’s, whose other works include Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, and Bus Stop. Inge captured the passion of young love, and also the stultifying small town that Bud and Deanie inhabit, with its rigid behavioral expectations. Splendor was directed by Elia Kazan, one of the major American directors of the 1950’s, whose other films include A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. There was a lot of talent assembled for Splendor in the Grass, and they all did remarkable work. Warren Beatty gave an excellent performance as Bud, and Natalie Wood delivered one of her definitive performances as Deanie. 

The supporting cast of Splendor was marvelously talented. Pat Hingle was great as the annoying Ace Stamper. Hingle had recently survived a terrible accident, as he had fallen fifty feet down an elevator shaft in 1959, breaking many bones and nearly dying. His limp as Ace Stamper was no actor’s affectation-that was how Hingle walked after the accident. As you watch the movie, you’ll notice that Hingle doesn’t seem old enough to be Warren Beatty’s dad, and he wasn’t. Hingle was just thirteen years older than Beatty. But Hingle was twenty three years older than Joanna Roos, who plays his wife in the movie! Barbara Loden played Bud’s older sister, a wild flapper who is in full rebellion against the family. Loden was having an affair with Elia Kazan, and they eventually married in 1967. Look for Phyllis Diller at the end of the movie as a nightclub hostess-she even gets to tell a few jokes. Also be on the lookout for William Inge in an uncredited cameo as the Reverend. 

How did Warren Beatty get to be so lucky to make his first film with Natalie Wood, Eliza Kazan, and William Inge? The story that usually gets told is that Warren Beatty’s acting career was jump-started when the director Joshua Logan saw him at the North Jersey Playhouse in in a production of Compulsion in December of 1958. Logan was a noted theater director who co-wrote the book for South Pacific. Logan was a good friend of the playwright William Inge, and had directed the movie versions of Inge’s plays Picnic, starring William Holden, in one of his best roles, and Bus Stop, starring Marilyn Monroe. Inge thought that Beatty would be perfect for one of the lead roles in Splendor in the Grass, a screenplay he was writing for director Elia Kazan. The story of Beatty being discovered by Joshua Logan is repeated in Peter Biskind’s biography of Beatty, but Suzanne Finstad’s Beatty biography has a different tale to tell. Finstad’s book states that William Inge saw Beatty on an episode of an NBC TV show called True Story. Inge thought that Beatty would be perfect for Splendor in the Grass. (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.174) Inge refuted the story that he or Logan saw Beatty on stage, and he said in 1967, “Just for the record, neither Josh Logan nor I even knew that Warren had played in Compulsion.” (Finstad, p.180) I couldn’t find any reference to Beatty appearing on an episode of True Story on to confirm Inge’s story, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Before Beatty made Splendor, he was briefly under contract to MGM, but he bought himself out of the contract in the summer of 1959, before he had ever accepted any roles at the studio. Even then, Beatty was highly selective about the parts he played. At this point in time, if Warren Beatty was known to anyone in the show business world, it was most likely for being Shirley MacLaine’s little brother, or for being Joan Collins’ boyfriend. But William Inge believed in Beatty’s talent, and he gave Beatty the lead role in his new play, A Loss of Roses, which opened on Broadway in November, 1959. It closed after just three weeks. It is, to date, Beatty’s only appearance on the Broadway stage. However, Beatty was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor. A Loss of Roses was eventually filmed as The Stripper, released in 1963. Richard Beymer, most famous for playing Tony in West Side Story, played the role that Beatty played on stage. And, in another connection to Natalie Wood’s most famous roles, Gypsy Rose Lee had a role in The Stripper. 

Beatty’s screen credits at the time he began filming Splendor in the Grass included appearances on 5 TV shows, plus 2 episodes of a TV show called Look Up and Live, and 5 episodes on the teenage sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, playing Milton Armitage, a rich kid who vied with Dwayne Hickman for Tuesday Weld’s affections. It was not exactly an overpowering body of work. But Beatty did very well in Splendor. Of course, it helped that Inge tailored the role to fit Beatty. Beatty’s acting style was highly reminiscent of the late James Dean, and working with Kazan and Wood only reinforced the connection to Dean. Beatty’s performance in Splendor is much better than his performances in his other early movies, like The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, All Fall Down, and Lilith. Part of the reason might be that Splendor is just a better movie than Beatty’s other early movies. 

At the time Splendor was filmed in 1960, Natalie Wood was having a difficult time finding the kind of roles she wanted to play. Wood had started out as a child star, appearing in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street when she was just eight years old. Wood had made the difficult transition to adolescence with her fantastic performance as Judy, opposite James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. But five years after Rebel, her career seemed stuck. Off-screen, Wood was married to handsome young actor Robert Wagner, and they were one of young Hollywood’s most popular couples, who gathered headlines wherever they went. 

Wood longed to play Deanie, and in the words of her biographer Suzanne Finstad, “She saw Splendor, and its director, Kazan, as her last best hope to restore her integrity as an actress.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.254) Kazan said of Wood’s reputation at the time, “People said generally that she was finished, washed up.” (The Sexiest Man Alive: A Biography of Warren Beatty, by Ellis Amburn, p.35) Kazan had always had Wood on his short list of actresses to play Deanie, but he was wary of her reputation as a pampered movie star. Once he met her in person, he knew that she would be excellent as Deanie. Kazan said later of Wood, “She worked as if her life depended on it.” (Natasha, p.256) 

As excited as Wood was to play Deanie, there were also parts of the script that made her nervous. Wood was very frightened at the thought of filming the scene where Deanie attempts to kill herself by throwing herself into a reservoir where she and Bud used to park and neck. Wood had been terrified of water since she was a child, and insisted that Kazan hire a double to film the scene. Wood claimed that Kazan hired a double, but the double couldn’t swim at all, forcing Wood to perform the stunt herself. Kazan claimed that he didn’t hire a double for Wood. Regardless of the truth, Wood had to confront one of her deepest fears, and the scene is wrenching not only because of Deanie’s emotional state, but because of the way it echoes Wood’s own tragic death by drowning in 1981. (Natasha, p.261-2 has more information about the filming of the scene.)

Another difficult scene for Natalie Wood to film was the one in which Deanie has an emotional argument with her mother while taking a bath. Her mother tries to get more information about how far Deanie went with Bud, and asks her, “Did he spoil you?” Deanie yells back “I’m not spoiled!” Natalie had to perform the scene nearly naked, and she also did it without an accessory that she always wore. For the bathtub scene, Natalie took off the bracelets that she wore on her left wrist. She had broken her left wrist at a young age, and it never healed properly, so her wrist bone stuck out a bit. Natalie was always very self-conscious about her wrist, so she wore bracelets to hide it. But for the bathtub scene, Natalie isn’t wearing anything on her left wrist. Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad wrote the following about the bathtub scene: “The combination of Kazan’s wizardry, Natalie’s emotional connection to the mother/daughter conflict in the scene, the panic of dousing her head under the bath water, and the vulnerability she felt at being seen ‘naked’-without her bracelet-produced a hysteria in Natalie that may be her most powerful moment as an actress.” (Natasha, p.260)  

Together Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty made a very pretty pair. Beatty was an extremely handsome young man, with a thick head of dark brown hair, full, sensual lips, a cleft chin, and clear blue eyes. Women didn’t seem to care that his ears stuck out a little bit. Natalie Wood was simply stunning. She was a very attractive woman who had lots of sex appeal. Wood was petite, with reports of her height varying from 5’0” to 5’3”. Wood had beautiful big warm brown eyes, dark brown hair, and an inviting smile. And no man ever cared that her left wrist stuck out a little bit. 

On the set, Wood and Beatty had a somewhat frosty relationship. Wood bestowed on Beatty the nickname “Mental Anguish,” for the way he overanalyzed every nuance of the script. (Natasha, p.258) In an unfinished memoir from 1966, Wood wrote of Beatty: “After he got the role, a few misunderstandings crept in. Warren had heard rumors that I didn’t want him in the film, that he was too much of an unknown, that we needed an established male star to carry the picture at the box office. None of this was true. But Warren believed it…Warren acted quite aloof.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.235) Finstad describes Wood’s memoir in more detail: “In July of 1966, Wood submitted her ‘life story’ to Peter Wyden, then the executive director of Ladies’ Home Journal, and a book publisher. It was written by hand, and in typescript with Wood’s handwritten corrections.” (Finstad, p.260) 

 Beatty’s romantic relationship with Wood almost certainly did not start on the set of Splendor, but rather a year later, in 1961, after Wood separated from Robert Wagner. During filming of Splendor Beatty was still dating Joan Collins, and Collins and Wagner were frequently on the set. Splendor began filming in New York City on May 9, 1960, and it wrapped on August 16, 1960. Just two days later Wood started rehearsals for West Side Story. (Biskind, p.38) Ironically, Beatty had tested for the role of Tony in West Side Story, but he lost out to the dull and colorless Richard Beymer. (Finstad, p.228) 

In his book Pieces of My Heart, Robert Wagner wrote, “Beatty had nothing to do with our breakup, and Natalie didn’t begin to see him until after we split.” (Wagner, p.136, quoted in Biskind’s biography of Beatty) In an interview with Peter Biskind, Beatty also says that nothing happened between him and Natalie during filming. “There’s a lot of apocrypha about Natalie and I having something going on during Splendor in the Grass. It’s utterly untrue. In fact it was a fairly distant relationship.” (Biskind, p.37) 

Natalie Wood’s account of how her relationship with Beatty began also squares with what Beatty and Wagner said. Wood wrote, “I have suffered in silence from gossip about my walking away from my marriage to go with Warren. There was gossip and speculation that Warren was in some way responsible for the end of the marriage. It is totally untrue. Warren had nothing to do with it. We began our relationship after, not before, my marriage collapsed.” (Finstad, p.268, source is Wood’s 1966 “life story”) 

Wood and Wagner announced their separation on June 21, 1961, and a month later, on July 27th, Beatty was Wood’s date at a preview screening of West Side Story. Even though Robert Wagner said Beatty didn’t have anything to do with their breakup, he was still pissed off at Beatty. “I wanted to kill the son of a bitch. I was hanging around outside his house with a gun, hoping he would walk out. I not only wanted to kill him, I was prepared to kill him.” (Wagner, Pieces of My Heart, p.142, quoted in Biskind bio) If Wagner had really wanted to kill Beatty, he probably should have just hung around outside the house that Natalie Wood was renting. 

Both Wood and Beatty were pilloried in the popular press at the time they started dating, because the assumption at the time was that their relationship had precipitated the disintegration of Wood and Wagner’s marriage. Beatty, who has long had a contentious relationship with the press, was accused of being a homewrecker, and he said in an interview with Peter Biskind: “The press has beat the shit out of me since 1960. Nobody gets beat up like a twenty-two-year-old pretty boy.” (Biskind, p.49) 

Wood and Beatty’s relationship was anything but calm, and they eventually broke up in 1963. But for a while they were one of the hottest Hollywood couples, a sort of junior version of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Wood wrote of their relationship, “Neither Warren nor I was ready for a permanent relationship…at bottom, we both knew it was only an interim relationship. Both of us were not only immature but moody…we were both so confused that we thought fighting and hostility meant real emotional honesty.” (Finstad, p.273, source is Wood’s 1966 “life story”)

Splendor was released on October 10, 1961, and Beatty was given a big press buildup before the film’s release. That buildup, combined with his new romance with Wood meant that millions of people had seen Warren Beatty’s face and name before they had ever seen him on screen. Which begs the question: why was the post-production period for Splendor so long? In those days, it was extremely rare for a movie to be released 14 months after it had finished filming, especially a property that the studio actually had faith in. A more normal post-production period for Splendor would have meant a release in early 1961. If Kazan had really been under pressure from Warner Brothers, it could have even come out in December of 1960. Another odd thing about the release of Splendor is that it came out just before West Side Story, which premiered in New York City on October 18, 1961. West Side Story would assuredly be one of the major releases of 1961, so why release Splendor at the same time and have two films starring Natalie Wood competing at the box office? But it doesn’t seem as though the competition hurt either film, as they both did very well. According to Wikipedia, West Side Story was the highest-grossing movie released in 1961, earning $43 million. Splendor in the Grass was number 10, earning $11,000,000. Annoyingly, there’s no link to where the total for Splendor comes from. IMDB says Splendor made $8.7 million, which was still a huge total, and would put it at 14th for the year. 

Wood and Beatty both received glowing reviews for their performances in Splendor, and they were both nominated for Golden Globes. They both lost, Beatty to that year’s Oscar winner, the handsome German actor Maximilian Schell for his role in Judgement at Nuremburg, and Wood to Geraldine Page for Summer and Smoke. (Ironically, one of Wood’s fellow nominees was Beatty’s sister Shirley MacLaine, who was nominated for The Children’s Hour.) However, Beatty did win the Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer-Male,” which he shared with the singer Bobby Darin. 

Splendor in the Grass was nominated for two Oscars, William Inge for his original screenplay, and Wood for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Beatty and Wood attended the Oscars together, and Life magazine was so sure Natalie would win the Oscar that they hired a photographer to follow her on the day of the ceremony, April 9, 1962. (Natasha, p.282-3) Inge won the Oscar, but Wood lost to Sophia Loren, who won for her role in Two Women. Meanwhile, West Side Story won 10 Oscars that night. Later that week, after losing the Oscar, Wood filed for divorce from Robert Wagner. According to Beatty biographer Ellis Amburn, part of the reason Beatty wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Splendor was because Warner Brothers was trying to push for Beatty to be nominated as Best Supporting Actor for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was a foolish idea, as anyone who has seen Beatty’s performance in that film can attest. 

An interesting postscript to Beatty and Wood’s relationship is that in 1966, three years after they broke up, Beatty tried to persuade Wood to star in Bonnie and Clyde with him. It was one of the few times when Beatty was not able to get what he wanted from a woman, as Wood turned him down. Beatty said, “I guess I wasn’t too persuasive; at that point I wasn’t getting a lot of offers and Natalie was riding the crest of her career.” Wood said in a 1969 interview, “I loved the script and I loved the part, but I had personal reasons. I didn’t want to go to Texas on location and well, Warren and I are friends, but working with him had been difficult before.” (Both quotes from Natasha, p.313) It’s fascinating to think what Bonnie and Clyde would have been like with Natalie Wood instead of Faye Dunaway.

Splendor in the Grass is a fantastic movie, and I would highly recommend it for any fans of Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, William Inge, and Elia Kazan.

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