Sorry for the delay, all! Between holiday mayhem and extra work at work, I was overwhelmed by life a while. Fittingly enough – since our leads in this film both suffer from being overwhelmed, although in their case it’s by the double-standard and by parental expectations.
(That was not the most graceful of segues, I’ll admit.)
Wilma Deane “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) are high school sweethearts in rural Kansas, back in 1928. Deanie’s parents are pleased by the match – the Stampers are the richest folks in town, thanks to the oil wells managed by patriarch Ace (Pat Hingle). But Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) is also a bit concerned with her daughter’s virginal virtue, repeatedly reminding her of the things that nice girls don’t do with boys. Bud’s got his own problems, with Ace pushing him towards a degree from Yale so he can properly take his place at the head of the family business someday. Bud’s not exactly keen on the idea, but Ace reminds him that Bud is their best family hope – after all, his older sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) has run off and become a flapper and an art student. Quelle horreur!
With all that pressure put on Bud, he naturally turns to Deanie for consolation and support – but Bud is also a teenage boy, so he’d very much like some of that consolation to be physical. Except Deanie keeps shutting him down because she feels she has to (even though Ginny tells the both of them that they can both fool around, for pity’s sake). But one sad night, Bud breaks things off with Deanie, knowing he can’t keep himself under control forever, and Deanie reacts badly – starting with a clumsy attempt to seduce Bud during a school dance, and ending with her trying to drown herself in a lake near town. Deanie’s parents send her to a sanitarium for treatment, while Bud gets packed off to Yale…will our lovers ever reunite?
Reviews at the time focused on the sexual-ethics double-standard angle of the plot – how Deanie was being pressured to save her virginity for her wedding night, while Bud was given a free pass to screw around as long as it was with “the other kind of girl”. The whole virgin/whore double standard for women gets a lot of criticism here – Deanie blows up at her mother at one point for meekly asking whether Deanie is upset because “did Bud…spoil you?” Ginny also gets her say, letting loose a drunken rant at the guests at the Stampers’ New Years’ Eve party about how most of the men in town won’t speak to her in public “but in the dark, oh, they’re very familiar then!” Sadly, rather than feeling shame at this call-out, the single guys at the party use this as an excuse to try to gang-rape Ginny later.
I’d known about this angle before the film; however, the whole plot seems to be not so much about teenagers coming to grips with sexuality as it is about flawed parents royally messing up their kids. Deanie’s mother is horrified by Deanie’s breakdown – to the point of denial, insisting for a long while that “there’s nothing wrong with her” and “she’s perfectly fine”. She hides Deanie’s breakdown from most of the town, she sweeps Deanie’s woes under the rug. She tries to lie to Deanie about where Bud is when Deanie finally arrives home. Only in one quiet moment does the denial slip, when Deanie is unpacking after her return home and her mother meekly asks whether the psychiatrist told Deanie to blame her for her troubles. “…You know I raised you the best I knew how, right? You’re not mad at me, are you?”
But at least Mrs. Loomis listens to Deanie on occasion. Ace doesn’t even do that much – he forever talks over Bud and Ginny and even his own wife, insisting that he knows what’s right for everyone. Even when Bud is flunking out of Yale, and desperately begs the dean to talk to his father and get him to understand he doesn’t even want a degree, Ace talks over the dean as well, insisting that Bud doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that someone just needs to shake some sense into the boy. He drags Bud off for a weekend in New York where he hopes to do precisely that – with some unforeseen results.
I was honestly more impressed with this aspect of the plot than anything else – at the clear-eyed way it handled how thoroughly the parents had messed things up for their kids. Ace is clearly a narcissist and isn’t cut any slack for it; but Mrs. Loomis is clearly just ill-equipped to raise Deanie in a changing world. She does cause Deanie no end of trouble, but she’s only doing things the way she has been taught to do them. The new world and its changing rules is scaring her, and she doesn’t know how to handle it – but somehow still has to raise a daughter, and falls back on doing that the only way she knows how, even if it doesn’t entirely fit. She ends up a sympathetic character despite the trouble she’s put Deanie through.
The title is taken from a poem of Wordsworth’s, which gets quoted in a pivotal scene in Bud and Deanie’s high school English class:
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not; rather find
Strength in what remains behind.”
Both Bud and Deanie end up sadder but wiser by the end, and we’re clearly meant to feel that they were Supposed To Be Together But Fate Tore Them Apart. But I’m not so sure they both feel that way; and I actually find myself holding out a lot of hope for Deanie at the end, as she thinks back on those lines. She gets that nothing can bring back that splendor in the grass – but also seems to get that it’s not supposed to come back either. In an earlier scene Deanie observes that the poem is about losing one’s childish idealism when one grows up; but the Deanie I see at the end seems to get that that’s okay sometimes, and what lies ahead can still be full of promise.