West Side Story had been a difficult, daunting project for Natalie Wood. It was a film adaptation of a Broadway musical in which the entire cast was composed of singer-dancers, and song and dance was the essence of the film adaptation as well — the catalyst, the spark that propelled the story forward, not line after line of dialogue. She had no prior experience as a singer or dancer. The days when successful actors had backgrounds in vaudeville or the “legitimate” theater and were known as “triple threats” with the ability to sing, dance and deliver a well-timed comic punchline, had died with the rise of the studio system in which everyone was specialized and new talent was developed according to what “type” best suited the needs of the studio and the demands of moviegoers. Not necessarily a bad idea if your goal is fast, efficient, consistent assembly line production of entertainment. But not a good one if you are looking for a multi-talented, well-rounded performer for whom nothing is a real “stretch.”
Natalie Wood, confident in her abilities — overconfident might be more accurate — actually wanted to sing the part of Maria. She had a pleasant voice of limited range, but unless she had been born forty years later with the benefit of modern digital technology, she could never have been a successful singer. And the score for West Side Story was not pop music, although it had an undertone of jazz — be-bop or “cool jazz.” In reality, it was an operatic score. It required singers with serious vocal chops, with range, breath control and the ability to project. It was absurd for Natalie Wood to think for a minute that she could pull this off.
However, either someone thought she actually could or, as is more likely, didn’t have the courage to tell her she couldn’t do it and that Maria’s “vocals” in the film would be dubbed by a professional singer. She was allowed to rehearse Maria’s numbers, until at some point before shooting commenced she was informed that she would lip-synch to a vocal track by Marni Nixon, a skilled singer with an operatic voice and range. (Nixon never became a star in film or as a singer, but she had a long and very successful career dubbing the vocals of non-singers: Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (only for the “high notes,” Marilyn was a fairly decent singer, but with limited range), Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” and in miscellaneous parts for the soundtracks to “The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins,” the Disney animated features, “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and more recently “Mulan.”
There was also a level of resentment on the part of cast members, particularly those who were veterans of the musical stage or in the cast of the original Broadway show, toward a “Hollywood movie star” with no stage experience, who wasn’t a singer, dancer or hispanic, taking the role of Maria. Today, a white actress would not be cast in the role of a latina. But in those less sensitive, less politically correct times, the early 1960s, few people outside of the cast were concerned about that aspect, assuming they thought of it at all. But apparently there was enough tension on the set for various reasons that Rita Moreno, forty years later, recalled that the relationship between the cast and Natalie Wood was somewhat cold. But given that Ms. Wood is not able to defend herself at this point in time, I’ll argue that it is very likely that the coldness or tension had much to do with her inner anxieties — which must have been nearly overwhelming at times — about her ability to play Maria. She was all of 22 when shooting commenced and up to that point her most challenging role had been five years earlier at age 17, appearing opposite then-unknown James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause — and five years is a very long time when you are 22 and attempting to build a career in Hollywood.
As to the outcome, there is no doubt. The film adaptation was a huge success. Natalie Wood received much-needed vindication when she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of Maria. The review by Bosley Crowther, crusty critic (for 20-plus years at that time) of the New York Times was typical of the general media reaction.
But there was another film, a film that worked on a much more personal level for the actress, and unlike “West Side Story” and “Maria,” it was a role and a film that she could claim as her “own.” No one could rightly call “West Side Story” a “Natalie Wood” picture, or even a “vehicle” for the young star-to-be. But with “Splendor in the Grass,” those four words could be used in the same sentence in the identical sequence and not fall flat: “A Natalie Wood Movie.”
In reality it was hardly that. “Splendor” was written by respected playwright William Inge and directed by Elia Kazan, a veteran of the stage as an actor, writer and director for the previous thirty years. Here she was, as in “West Side Story,” in a film written and directed by people who lived and breathed live theater who were once again staring her in the face. If she blinked, not one soul noticed.
Put in the simplest terms, “Splendor in the Grass,” is a story of contrasts — of competing, clashing and changing values in society. Though set initially in 1928 Kansas, the story still fit the world of 1961, though that world would change drastically in the remainder of that decade: social upheaval, the waning influence (some of it temporary and variable by region) of religious institutions, legal abortion, no-fault divorce, pre-marital sex and pregnancies, postponement or forgoing of marriage, the drug culture, political upheaval: the “cold war” with communism and its satellites, constant threat of nuclear annihilation, war in Vietnam, three political assassinations, the undefinable influence of something that would come to be called “mass media” where the medium itself was the message. And yet many of these elements of societal breakdown can already be seen in their early stages in the Kansas and New York of 1928 to 1931, roughly the period in which “Splendor” is set.
Like “West Side Story,” “Splendor” is a variation on the story of love made impossible by forces beyond control of the lovers. They understand their feelings for each other at a very primal level, but nothing else. The forces of conflict within the family — a mother who suffocates her child while the father remains on the sidelines a seemingly disinterested observer, or a father whose pursuit of wealth and its power becomes a psychosis that kills him, nullifies the near-invisible mother, and drives his daughter literally to death.
“West Side Story” and “Splendor in the Grass” had in common a story of young love broken apart. But there is a difference between the two stories worth mentioning and remembering as we watch these films. There is a point about two-thirds of the way into “WSS” where the owner of the neighborhood soda shop, played by veteran character actor, Ned Glass, after witnessing more than enough of the gang-related violence and destruction declares, “You kids make the world LOUSY!” Lacking the prerequisite curse words that would be used by him if the film were remade today, it still makes its point resoundingly clear — at some point these “kids,” these children, have to assume responsibility for behavior that is not episodic, but chronic, a near-permanent fixture of those west side tenements.
“Splendor” has no similar character to speak out in despair, but clearly the onus is on the adults — though not necessarily the obvious examples. Rather than the destructive examples of Mr. Stamper and Mrs. Loomis, it is those adults who stand by, even when sought out by those in trouble, Bud and Deanie. The doctor who can only giggle and smile nervously when Bud asks him what he should do for his sexual frustration, the clergyman who has no answers for Deanie when she is struggling desperately with her feelings for someone she is losing; and the few adults who genuinely seem to care, Bud’s basketball coach (although his motives for caring may be questionable, self-serving), are intimidated by the parents. In “Splendor” it is the adults who make this world “lousy.”
Once broken away from the death-like grip of their parents they begin to heal, Bud and Deanie, each in their own separate way, never reconnecting with each other as they or the audience may have expected, each taking different path — Bud back to the earth, not for the black gold of his father, but for what careful tending of the earth can give; Deanie, engaged to be married to a young man she met at the institution where she received her treatment, embarks on a new life, and having seen Bud again and met his child and pregnant wife, she makes peace with the past, and can now move forward, unencumbered by it.
The final shot of Deanie in the back seat of her girlfriends’ car, her face serene in a way not seen before in the film. The film ends with lines from the Wordsworth poem** in her mind, heard only by the audience, as she travels down the dusty farm road to meet the future. And it is, miraculously, not a sad ending.
**”Splendor in the Grass” takes its title from the 19th century English poet William Wordsworth and his 1807 collection of works, “Poems in Two Volumes,” specifically the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:”
“What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,/ 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–/In the primal sympathy/ Which having been must ever be, / In the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering,/In the faith that looks through death,/In years that bring the philosophic mind.”
It is a recollection of childhood lost, but vivid in memory, with all of the losses in life on the road to adulthood and the unavoidable, lingering grief — grief properly placed in the past and not to be dwelt upon. It is a declaration of strength that has its source in the present, not the past, in what we have now, not in what we have lost, and what we will have in the time that remains to us.
It is especially poignant when applied to the life of Natalie Wood, a Hollywood creation who did not have a childhood or adolescence that was “normal” by any standard. She was a child actress no longer, a teenage “star” no longer — and married no longer — but she found resiliency in hard work. Work that would soon be rewarded, with all the good things and bad that come with fame, with “movie stardom,” and would find herself on the cusp of great achievement, on the threshold of something bigger than she’d dreamed of just months earlier — a life of seemingly unlimited possibilities. And a life that in 1961 had already passed its midpoint.
End of Part Two.
The next essay will continue with critical reaction to “Splendor;” more recognition for Natalie Wood by the film industry; the difficulty she would have in following two outstanding films; and the two films that did follow, “Gypsy” and “Love with the Proper Stranger.”