“The performing arts, theater and film, can be as meaningful as the drama of living itself.” —Elia Kazan
I just saw two of the best movies I have seen in a while, both directed by Elia Kazan (so damn good in fact that now I have to squeeze them on my 101 Best American Movies list): Face in the Crowd & Splendor in the Grass.
Face in the Crowd was made in 1957 and stars Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes, a country drifter with a guitar and a rowdy talent for song and sweet talk. Local radio host Patricia O’Neal discovers Rhodes in a county jail and turns him into a radio and then a TV star; with his canny knack for appealing to the common folk—possible guileless, possibly not—Rhodes becomes an enormously powerful political figure. In the words of James Wolcott, Rhodes is “a rough diamond charismatic . . . who catapults into national celebrity only to become the puppet of a populist scheme orchestrated by corporate overlords, who exploit his likeability as a lever of social control.”
Splendor in the Grass was made in 1962 and stars Natalie Wood and a very young Warren Beatty (in his first screen role) as star-crossed (and puritan-plagued) lovers in late 1920s Kansas. Despite being 50 and 45 years old, respectively, both these films seem surprisingly modern; they haven’t dated in any way that reduces the pleasure of watching them. If anything, they may even have improved with age, especially when compared to movies of the present—which may seem depressingly superficial and frivolous by comparison.
By today’s standards, Splendor is certainly melodramatic; yet for all its hysterical qualities, I think it would be far too intense for today’s audiences. And while Face is a little simplistic, its depiction of the mass media’s role in politics and in shaping the public opinion has proved amazingly prescient, if not prophetic. (Though it may at times be facile, I don’t think it’s any less searing or intelligent an indictment than, say, Michael Richie’s The Candidate or Levinson/Mamet’s Wag the Dog, and it’s a much better film.)
What’s most striking about both films is the sophistication of the writing (Face was written by Budd Schulberg, Splendor by William Inge). You don’t get scripts like this nowadays—or at least they don’t make it to the screen—mostly because this kind of literary, theatrical writing is no longer fashionable (perhaps it’s not possible, either). Nowadays, movies are either mainstream genre fare or “independent realism”—films that opt for everyday banality over engaging story (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine). Movies may have escaped the hysteria and corniness of melodrama, but in the process they have lost something valuable: the emotional intensity of good, biting social drama.
Face and Splendor are realistic films for the period; but they are not by any stretch of the imagination fly-on-the-wall, kitchen-sink dramas. They are never banal or mundane like so many “realistic” movies today. They’re more “theatrical”: the scenes are built and dramatically structured, rich with good, old-fashioned character dynamics and psychological undercurrents. Today’s movies are more kinetic, and watching this fantastic double bill, I realized how much I miss seeing the “old-style” kind of movie, films that involve you emotionally, to a degree today’s “sophisticated” (i.e., cynical) audiences would probably laugh at—because they would resent being made to feel this deeply. Yet emotional realism is what Kazan was best at, and what made him one of the great American directors (actually, he was Greek).
Both films are utterly different—one wouldn’t guess they were made by the same man—and it’s hard to say which I liked better. The first hour of Face transported me to a kind of movie heaven I haven’t experienced in ages; the second hour is less effective—and certainly less enjoyable—but even so, the film manages to hold its themes together and come through triumphantly in the end, no mean feat considering how ambitious it is. Patricia O’Neal is an amazingly beautiful actress and an unusual presence; whenever she’s on screen, it feels like we’re watching a contemporary movie. She has a remarkable ease, a naturalness, unusual even in actors today (it’s most striking when she smiles—she practically lights up the set). On the other hand, I’d never heard of Andy Griffith, and it’s easy to see why he never became a movie star. He’s inspired in the early scenes—a real tornado bumpkin—but less convincing later on, when he needs to be a darker, more complex, Machiavellian character. It’s not really his fault, however, because Schulberg and Kazan haven’t developed the character as much as they needed to either, and with or without Griffith, the film never quite delivers on its original promise. Even so, it’s an astonishingly audacious tale, as relevant today as it ever was, maybe even more so. It’s a sort of archetypal movie, like a template, a Platonic model for the tale of a nobody becoming a somebody, and in the process, being turned into (revealing his true colors as) a scumbag.
Intense as Face in the Crowd is, however, and fascinating as the characters are, in the end they are perhaps not fully convincing. Splendor in the Grass, on the other hand, even while more overtly soap operatic, rings true, and is the more successful (and emotionally wrenching) of the two films. The title is taken from a poem by Wordsworth, “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
Inge, the writer, takes not just his title but his central theme from this poem. The film shows how our youthful dreams for the future must in the end submit to the limitations of reality. In other words, it’s the story of everyone’s life; but since I’ve recently gone through a particularly devastating realization of just this (as well as turning 40), the film struck me as especially poignant. The ardent, devotional love between the two main characters, Bud and Deanie (Beatty and Wood), is both convincing and touching; in movie terms, lovers like this simply have to wind up together. So when circumstances take over and they are torn apart, we trust they will eventually overcome the obstacles and be reunited. But in the end, they go their separate ways, and are left with the tender ache of melancholia for what once was and can never be. With its bittersweet ending, the movie adheres to a kind of integrity that has nothing to do with audience demands or genre conventions, and everything to do with fidelity to the story. Inge writes what he knows to be true.
Such authenticity—not only of the story but the personalities and performances—is rare in movies of any period, and Kazan has a remarkable gift for it, and for blending melodrama with authenticity. Splendor and Face are dramatic, intense, and hugely entertaining. They are never mundane, yet they capture the truth of their subjects to a remarkable degree. Although his films are stylized, Kazan seems almost obsessively dedicated to drawing the truth from his scenes. Though he doesn’t shy away from realism, he doesn’t get bogged down by it either.
People change; they grow, they move on; though at the time it seems literally unthinkable, the passions of youth, the splendor in the grass, fade and die and turn into something else. The sadness of living is inseparable from the wisdom gained by it.
Watching these films back to back reminded me how much I adore movies. It also reminded me of why. At their best, movies not only provide a respite and refuge from the harshness of our lives; they can also renew a passion that is dwindling, and help us to find strength in what remains. They awaken a primal sympathy.