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The God that Failed: A Meditation on Sexual Passion in Splendor in the Grass

            The interpretation of the 1961 movie, Splendor in the Grass, as an outright condemnation of the repressive sexual mores of 1920’s small-town America is simplistic.  The film presents a nuanced view of sexual passion as a force that cannot be healthily denied, but that also is so powerful that it can be destructive (Spoiler alerts).  

            Deanie and Bud, ably played by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, are deeply in love teens.  Deanie follows her mother’s advice not to have sex with Bud.  The problem is that her mother believes that good girls don’t have a desire for sex and that even wives just put up with it because their husbands enjoy it.  She is obsessed by fear that Deanie has “spoiled” herself.  Hers is the advice of the repression of sexual desire and denial of the legitimate pleasures of intimacy.

            Bud’s gross and overbearing father does not want him to marry a girl from the poor side of town. He convinces Bud to have sex with a willing girl as a release and also to get him away from Deanie.  He views sex as an animal desire, like hunger, that merely needs to be satisfied.  It has nothing to do with love.

            Both Deanie and Bud are damaged by their parents’ false, indeed perverted, views that divorce sexual desire from love.  Deanie, fearful that she has lost Bud, tries to act like a girl of loose sexual morality and offers herself to Bud.  He is shocked because he looked on her as a good girl.  She then goes with another youth to have sex, but cannot go through with it and attempts to drown herself.  She has a mental breakdown and is committed to an institution.  Bud, whose love for Deanie has not diminished, wants to marry her.  He acquiesces to his father’s wish for him to attend Yale, but is failing all his classes and becoming a drunk.

            At this stage one could easily think that these are two young people in love who just need to get married, but this is to overlook two crucial scenes.  Earlier in the film, Bud calls Deanie his slave while forcing her to kneel in front of him and promise that she’ll do anything for him.  She does promise but is humiliated and rightly so.  Even though Bud stops and says that he was just kidding, his actions were cruel and immoral.  Romantic love is here portrayed as so powerful that it makes godlike demands, which is a perversion of love and corruption of human nature as well.

            On the other hand, in a later scene Bud in agony and desperation cries out that he can think of nothing else but Deanie and feels as if he is going crazy.  He is tossed about and possessed by the strength of his passion.  The force of unfulfilled romantic love is too much for the balance of the human psyche.

            In the end Bud is helped by an Italian girl whom he marries, has children with and fulfills his desire to run the family farm.  Deanie recovers and is planning to marry another recuperated patient.  If the film had ended this way, it could be seen either as two lovers sadly settling for second best, the calm of everyday marriage, or as a rather roundabout way to say that these were just two good kids with a few too many hormones to handle, but that they ended well and will live happily ever after, albeit a bit more calmly.

            But the film doesn’t end this way.  The film ends in a poignant scene in which Deanie meets Bud at his farm.  They both obviously still love each other, but see that there is no future for them as a couple.  They both admit to not thinking about happiness anymore, and Bud says that “you gotta take what comes.”  As he goes back to his wife, he kisses her to reassure her of his affection for her.  In the car Deanie’s friend asks her whether she still loves Bud.  She doesn’t respond but in a voiceover recites the hauntingly beautiful lines from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.”


            …The radiance which was once so bright
            Is now forever taken from my sight.
            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.


            The passion of their young love was a thing of beauty, but, as the splendor of the grass and the glory of the flower, it could not last.  As men and women mature, they learn that passion is not the sum total of life.  However, this lesson does not mean a rejection of the validity of passion, but a building upon life’s experiences, in which the child becomes the father of the man.

            One should not miss that both Wordsworth’s ode and William Inge’s movie script allude to Isaiah 40:6, 8, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. … The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God lasts forever.”  As a Christian, I would say that we should have both a profound sense of the beauty of God’s creation but also a sadness that realizes that its beauty is passing in a fallen world.  Yet this sorrow should find its true place within the broader context of the confidence, born of hope, that our God whose word created the heavens and the earth will recreate them in a way that is more glorious than what we see now.  The divine love, which Dante pictured as a rose, will bring to unfading fulfillment both the splendor of the grass and the glory of romantic love.