It's 1928 and teenage Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) is in love with her boyfriend Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), who is out of her financial bracket thanks to his father (Pat Hingle) owning many oil wells in their Kansas home state. This means that Bud is not encouraged with his relationship, as his family believe this is simply a stage he's going through and will soon be off to college, learning to run the family business with all the wealth and high standing that will entail. Deanie's parents are more understanding, but her mother (Audrey Christie) tells her that she must remain a "nice girl"...
Or else who knows who she'll end up with? The whole idea of abstaining from sex until you're married is what drove the script by famed (at the time) playwright William Inge, with Deanie and Bud becoming so fixated on each other that something has to give eventually. It was a mark of how Hollywood was becoming more open to adult themes that Splendor in the Grass was made at all, and if it looks tamer now than it did back then, there was one aspect which endured and rendered it less a tale remembered for teenage lusts and more one of swooning romance. In truth, it was somewhere in between that its sympathies lay.
This is the film that Natalie Wood cultists point to to demonstrate how she was not, as she was often accused of being when she was alive, just a pretty face whose acting skills lived up to her surname, and was actually highly talented when offered the right role - see the class reading here for an example of her excellence. Certainly a lot of sentimentality follows her about seeing as how she grew up onscreen, was as psychologically fragile as Deanie turns out to be here, and of course because she died far too young in a not entirely explained drowning accident. The latter had a curious portent in this when the heartbroken Deanie attempts suicide by swimming over a waterfall, a scene impossible to watch without linking it to the star's tragic demise.
Deanie loses her marbles because of social and familial pressure as Bud succumbs to guilt that he should not be pursuing the girl because he wants her to remain "pure" and not be subjected to his urges. This sexual confusion doesn't do him much good either, and he takes up with the class bike before realising his mistake but it's too late for Deanie, and she is sent into a downward spiral of madness since she was so obsessed with Bud that life without him is too much to bear. This mental descent is foretold in the character of Bud's flapper sister Ginny (Barbara Loden), who gossip tells is less a free spirit and more what they would term a tramp, and those pressures get to her as well.
Yet ironically it's not the gossip of not being a nice girl that sends Deanie crazy, but the opposite as she tries to act according to social expectations and loses a battle with her sanity. Over the years Splendor in the Grass has struck a chord in many, not only those who watched it when teens but those who watched it at an older age and recognised the turmoil of emotions that the two lead characters were suffering. Not that everyone who meets and loses their true love goes round the bend in the way that Deanie does, for this is really her story though Bud (this was Beatty's debut and made a star of him overnight) does his part to make the story resonate too, but love as an affliction rather than something to be enjoyed would be the spark of many a tragic romance in the movies for decades after. Some have complained that director Elia Kazan didn't quite have a firm enough hand on the production, but he did where it mattered: that Deanie and Bud were not to blame, it was those around them, and the authentic sadness was that their time together had passed the moment Deanie broke. Music by David Amram.