Best Actress 1961: Natalie Wood in "Splendor in the Grass"
She may not have won the Oscar but 1961 surely was Natalie Wood’s year. Besides proofing that she isn’t the little girl who believes in Santa Clause anymore with her performance as a sexually confused teenager in Splendor in the Grass, she further showed her versatility when she also took on the part of the Puerto Rican heroine in the Best Picture winner and classic movie musical West Side Story. This strong combination of remarkable talent wasn’t enough to overcome Sophia Loren who also displayed a sudden change of image into a serious, dramatic actress but it forever cemented her status as a talented character actress and serves as a beautiful legacy to her willingness to constantly find new challenges for herself.
Splendor in the Grass is a gripping tale about sexual tension and the confusion it evokes in growing teenagers. The whole story may too often suffer from heavy symbolism or self-important dialogue but Natalie Wood’s strong portrayal of a young woman driven to a nervous breakdown by sexual repression and society’s conventions is the one element that brings everything together with unforgettable dedication. Deanie is essentially torn apart by her own desires and society’s expectations. There is a longing inside her, a willingness to give her body to the man she loves, Bud, the son of the richest family in town and the dream of every high school-girl but at the same time her mother keeps telling her that men don’t respect girls who go to bed with them, that she would ruin her chance to marry him and that, after all, women don’t enjoy sex anyway but let the man have it – after marriage. Deanie, being the good girl she is, doesn’t seem to be able to fully comprehend these advices – why does she want to have sex with Bud if a woman is not supposed to enjoy it? Should she follow her own desires or her mother’s expectations and advices?
Bud on the other hand, receives rather different advice from his father and the two conversations portray the differences in thinking between man and women, rich and poor and between the advices for sons and daughters. Bud’s father tells his son to find a girl that will fulfil his sexual needs – but not Deanie since he is serious about her and, even worse, it might force him to marry her. Both parents advice their children to not have sex but for different reasons.
In this atmosphere, a world in which it isn’t clear if people prefer to talk about sex but not do it or prefer to have sex but not talk about it, it becomes more and more difficult for Deanie to distinguish between her instincts and her thoughts, between her love to Bud and her feelings of responsibility. Splendor in the Grass comes from a time when the thought about a woman being mentally destroyed by sexual longings is seen as the most logical possibility and Natalie Wood is therefore cast in a part that is both a challenge and an obstacle for her. Deanie surely asks her to reach new heights as an actress and create much more complexity than she had done so far in her career but Deanie is also a character that reflects a conservative view from the 50s on women’s’ behaviour in the 20s. This way Deanie could easily have become a collection of nervous tics and hysterical breakdowns without any true core but Natalie Wood magnificently took this part and gave it an emotional honesty and heartbreaking clarity. Her Deanie isn’t the ‘queen of the school’ but a rather typical student whose beauty gains her a lot of popularity but Natalie Wood demonstrates right from the start that Deanie’s feelings for Bud are true and that Deanie is not a girl who uses her looks to her own advantage but rather focuses her own behaviour on her wish to make him happy. Besides that, she is also a typical, but surprisingly serious student who doesn’t only want to be loved by Bud but also by her parents and her teachers. She symbolizes a certain ‘American perfection’ but all this isn’t able to remain once the controversial and difficult subject of sex enters her life.
Natalie Wood remarkably found a very balanced way to portray this rather unbalanced character. She constantly shows that Deanie has honest feelings for Bud and that it’s the loss of his love and his affection that causes her mental instability. It’s a simple story told in a complex way. Natalie Wood also avoided all the expected traps that such a character brings. Yes, she may look too adoringly at Warren Beatty while she is walking down the hall with him but she doesn’t turn Deanie into a cliché in all the extremes, loud and quiet, of her performance but instead keeps her grounded and real. Especially the scenes with Bud’s ‘scandalous’ sister are so interesting because Natalie Wood shows how Deanie is both amused and appalled by her behaviour and her open talk of sex and love and that way always has her own character constantly guessing her own intentions.
In one of her first scenes, Natalie Wood is kissing Bud in a lonely car with a seriousness and passion that normally would lead to more but Deanie, as much as she is beginning to feel a desire in her, still rejects Bud’s advances. The picture of the river and a damn will appear again in the movie and it’s not hard to believe that the movie makers used the river as a symbol for Bud’s will to move forward while Deanie is the damn that keeps him from going further which only impounds the sexual tension in Bud that he will finally act out with another girl. From this moment on sex becomes the constant theme of Splendor in the Grass, a constant battle of desire and repression and Natalie Wood’s Deanie is right in the middle of this – she has to deal with all kinds of inputs but can’t find an output for herself. Her mother tells her that nice girls don’t have sexual feelings and since she wants to be nice but can’t deny her feelings, her confusion begins to grow. It’s clear that Deanie wants to find the best way to please everyone around her and she also wants to show Bud her love and devotion which almost makes her look like his loyal wife – the way she acts concerned when he is wounded after a football game is the best example. Later, Deanie finally decides to sleep with Bud to prove her love but again her mother irritates her by telling her about Bud’s sister who got pregnant and had an abortion – this again shows how much Deanie suffers from the various demands that are made at her. Should she follow Bud’s wishes or her mother’s advices?
What could very easily have turned into a clichéd soap-opera at this point thankfully made a drastic but also intriguing turn when the relationship between Deanie and Bud suddenly ends and the combination of humiliation, frustration and confusion leads Deanie to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. Why did he leave her when she so hard tried to behave as society expected of her? She tried to be respectable and proper when Bud wanted to sleep with her and when she basically throws herself at him, he reminds her to be a ‘nice girl’ and rejects her – it’s clear that sex overstrains Deanie. Especially at the school ball, Natalie Wood portrays the neediness and desperation of Deanie very well. In showing this path of desperation, Natalie Wood is able to deliver various outstanding moments that completely dominate her performance and make other, rather conventional scenes, pale in comparison. Her scene when she slowly breaks down in school while reading a poem that so obviously mirrors her own situation is a heartbreaking moment and Natalie Wood beautifully combines everything that Deanie’s character wants to express – confusion, fear, inability to cope with life as it is right now. She believable walks this character’s path and it doesn’t seem like she is only walking it because the screenplay asks her to but because this is the path she would both choose but also be forced upon. Natalie Wood keeps the heartbreaking element in her performance when she tells her mother that she wants to die – it’s a shocking moment that Natalie Wood does incredibly beautifully because she whispers the words in a rather helpless way, without any hysterics or exaggerate gestures. The anticipated outburst of emotions that seems to have swollen up inside of Deanie finally comes during her breakdown in the bathtub which is probably one of the most exciting moments this category has ever seen. The way she completely lets herself go, seems so affected but also unaffected at the same time, throws her head in the water, moves her hand to her mouth, laughs, cries, shouts and shivers is almost painful to watch and she believably brings herself into a state of more and more hysteria with every word – a chilling moment that is surprisingly subtle despite the nature of the scene.
What could have been over-the-top and filled with sexual suggestions turned into a fascinating and captivating tour-de-force. Since Deanie doesn’t know how to act in these surroundings she tends to go too far in either direction, trying to save her reputation too hard or being willing to throw it away too easily. A lot of the movie’s themes and messages could have been lost in the sometimes unfocused direction but Natalie Wood carries and represents them wonderfully. At the end of the story, she doesn’t ‘solve’ the character but leaves her future open. Deanie may have recognized that she doesn’t need Bud anymore but it’s not sure if she will always follow her own realisations and how her sexual morals will affect her life from now on. But just like for the entire movie before, Natalie Wood always kept the essence of her character even though she underwent so many radical changes.
Natalie Wood is usually not among the most celebrated actresses of her area but her here she gives an absolutely luminous and daring performance in which she handles the difficulties of the character with astonishing ease and earnestness. Even though her character goes from one extreme to the other in a world she doesn’t understand, Natalie Wood always played her with a strong combination of subtle emotions and shocking realism. For this she gets