‘Splendor in the Grass’ and the Problem of Nice Girls

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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 

Elia Kazan’s 1961 melodrama Splendor in the Grass would play out in a fundamentally different way if made or set in 2020. The film, following two teenagers kept apart by class and social mores, shows clear marks of its time in both its story’s 1920s setting and its production’s Actors Studio influences.  That said, the film remains timeless thanks to its stellar central performances, a nuanced script, and the fact that the pressures put on young people, notably women, have changed far less than hoped. Splendor in the Grass makes visible the insidious, intangible forces that bear down on individuals to uphold the status quo. William Inge’s script and Kazan’s direction bring out the moral paranoia, patriarchal double standards, class conflicts, and economic destruction that shape Bud’s and Deanie’s early adulthoods.

The young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood capture two teenagers who do not have the self-confidence or worldly wisdom to call out their parents’ performative concerns and two-faced morality. There is less of a visible, hegemonic pressure today, but the unspoken pressure to be pleasant, accommodating, and above all nice – especially if presenting as conventionally female – can still be inescapable. In Wood’s fierce, incandescent performance, Deanie embodies the unwilling sacrifice of sexual autonomy and young love as she careened between rebellion and resignation, destroying her mental health in the process. Well-behaved women may seldom make history – but that depends on the woman surviving the rebellion. 

Throughout Splendor in the Grass, the emphasis from those around Deanie returns again and again to her niceness. In the film’s first scene, she plays this socially acceptable role. As she and Bud make out in his car, she nervously stops his advances, saying simply that they “mustn’t”. He stops and takes her home. It does not change their attachment to each other – in 1920s Kansas, what they ‘mustn’t’ is not questioned.

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As we meet the teenagers’ parents, their own reasons for separating the children become clear. Mr Stamper, one of the richest men in the town, does not want his son tied down by a girlfriend and a possible pregnancy; his pressures on Bud to go to Yale and get a high-powered job afterward contribute to his own woes throughout the film. Mrs Loomis, while keen to make a wealthy match for her daughter, thinks that perceived easy morals will make Deanie unmarriable; Bud’s flapper sister Ginny is her own parents’ nightmare. Mrs Loomis immediately reinforces the contrast between niceness and promiscuity, invading Deanie’s privacy literally and figuratively to police her daughter’s behaviour. As soon as Bud leaves, she looms in the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom, quashing Deanie’s elation with judgement. 

Mom, is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?

No nice girl does.

Doesn’t she?

No, no nice girl.

The problem with nice girls is that the distinction is externally conferred. Nice girls make the lives of those around them easier lest they lose the distinction. Nice girls do not complain when their boundaries are ignored – except to protect their ‘virtue’. Watching Deanie fight to reconcile opposed fears of rejection – from her mother, Bud, and her world – with equally strong desires for love, sex, and self-determination is heartrending. Whether professing that she is ‘alright… perfectly alright’ or sobbing that she cannot face her friends and wants to die, the same anguish underlies both. 

Mrs Loomis’s early invasion of Deanie’s bedroom is echoed midway through the film. Bud has called off their relationship; Deanie hides from her emotions in a steaming bath. Mrs Loomis demolishes Deanie’s privacy to ask her daughter if she has been ‘spoiled.’ Deanie turns feral, alternately raging and laughing hysterically, flailing in the water until she rises in confrontation – monstrous femininity meeting righteous avenger.

Spoil? Did he spoil me? No. No, Mom! I’m not spoiled! I’m not spoiled Mom! I’m just as fresh and virginal like the day I was born, Mom! I’m a lovely virginal creature who wouldn’t think of being spoiled! I’ve been a good little girl, Mom! I’ve been a good little, good little, good little girl!

Each Mom is a detonation. Her nakedness asserts her personhood, defies shame, and declares that she is more than her body and will decide what she does with it. 

The thought of Deanie ‘spoiled’ is enough to make her mother almost faint, but it should be noted that Bud is actively encouraged to seek out sex with other women provided they are not ‘nice girls’ themselves. He eventually chooses classmate Juanita Howard, known (rightly or wrongly, it does not matter) for her promiscuity. The patriarchal double standard bears down on boy and girl alike, but Deanie is the only one who ends up institutionalised for her desire. 

Bud has his own traumas and heartbreaks: he is steered away from his high school sweetheart, goes to Yale only to please his parents, and must identify his father’s body after his Great Depression suicide. However, his patriarchal indoctrination makes him an enforcer as well. In a particularly painful sequence, he cannot reconcile the actual and imaginary sides of the love of his life – the ‘nice girl’ he should be dating with her real flesh, blood, and desire – even after watching her journey through psychological hell. When she attempts to seduce him at a party, modelling her behaviour on Ginny Stamper’s scandalous freedom, he cannot understand how his ‘nice’ girlfriend would actively pursue sex:

Deanie, you’re a nice girl.”

I’m not. I’m not a nice girl.

Wood’s delivery is all pathos as she realises that neither pride, nor niceness, will satisfy her desire. The breaking point is clear: the girl remains nothing but ‘nice’ even to the one person she hoped would be her ally. After this, institutionalisation almost feels a comfort. 

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Throughout, Wood never loses sight of Deanie’s essential goodness – not her virginity or her behaviour with boys, but a curiosity and kindness she attempts but never manages to hide. Bud can move out, go to college, and pursue a career to distract from whatever pain is in his heart; Deanie has no such options but to chase after a forbidden womanhood, changing herself as she thinks her man desires. Watching her seize moments of rebellion and self-determination in the few ways she can, cutting her hair and flouting convention, is catharsis undercut with unspeakable grief. What is worth sacrificing part of yourself to survive?

Deanie is not seen again until the film flashes forward two and a half years, to her release from sectioning. Remarkably, she is recognisable – still irrepressibly vibrant and kind, delighted at the thought of seeing her school friends again, but measured in her thoughts and words around home. Kazan and Inge add a further complication when the seemingly inhuman Mrs Loomis cracks upon her daughter’s return, desperately asking her daughter if the doctors had blamed her or her husband for raising her wrong. Deanie takes an unreadable beat, and then she embraces and absolves her mother: ‘I don’t blame anyone, Mother…I love you, Mother.’

The troubling, moving moment lends itself to multiple interpretations, but the overwhelming atmosphere is shame and a realisation that whatever love Mrs Loomis has for her daughter has been forever overshadowed by her failure – a failure she is scared to acknowledge lest others call her to account. This vulnerability may be the film’s bitterest heartbreak. She conveys an unutterable grief when she sinks into her chair: she tried to give her daughter a strong start in the world and could not see past her own societal and moral rigidness to genuinely do so. 

Through this lens, Deanie’s response plays as true love and forgiveness, however unearned on her mother’s part. With her agency torn away, she reclaims it with the kindness of the lie. It is a small sacrifice for her mother’s comfort, and perhaps her own as well. The heartbreak of what might have been if Deanie and Bud had been allowed to grow old together – or at least had the chance to – for a moment feels the lesser tragedy in contrast to this sudden vulnerability. 

The film’s ending is timeless. Deanie finds out that Bud lives out of town, dirt poor with a wife and child. She pays him one last visit to wish him happiness, though both admit that they do not think much about the concept anymore. Then they part.  

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Before Splendor in the Grass, Inge wrote the Glory in the Flower – using a different section of Wordsworth’s verse for its title. It sees two formers lovers meeting again after a long estrangement. They could be Bud and Deanie, but what happens after the film does not matter. The tragedy is that Deanie – and to a lesser extend Bud – never gets to forge her own path. Her choices in life and love are forced upon and wrenched away from her in turn. And the fact that she retains her tenderness is both devastatingly hopeful. She has every right to bitterness and anger, and she shows both throughout the film, but in the end she chooses peace. Loomis’ words come back to haunt her, and the viewers:  

…it would be nice if children could be born into this world with an absolute guarantee that they were going to have just the right kind of bringing up and…happy, normal lives, Well, I guess when we get born, we just all have to take our chances.”

Despite Splendor in the Grass premiering almost sixty years ago, Deanie feels like a markedly contemporary woman – one who loves wholeheartedly, laughs easily, and brings the world to its knees in rage. One who fears talking about sexual harassment and assault in case the blame is cast on her behaviour. One whose big dreams and romantic fantasies were lost on the path to a modest happiness. One who could never be confined by nice, but it is the only word available. There is no doubt Deanie finds ‘strength in what remains behind’, but a girl – nice or not – should never have to pay this price. 

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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