By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Learning to move on.
The year is 1928 and Wilma (Natalie Wood) is a high school girl living in a small Kansas town and madly in love with Bud (Warren Beatty). The two share a strong even obsessive relationship and Bud wants to marry her, but his domineering father (Pat Hingle) wants him to wait and go to college for 4 years first. Because Wilma is a ‘nice girl’ he cannot have intimate relations with her before marriage, so in order to alleviate his sexual tensions his father advises that he have sex with a ‘loose woman’ and thus has a fling with Juanita (Jan Norris) who is also one of Wilma’s classmates. When Wilma finds out about this she is devastated and it sends her into a mental breakdown and eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Despite being set in a bygone period the film is hardly dated at all. The characters are real and going through much of the same dilemmas people today have including dealing with parents who push their children to go into fields of study that they aren’t interested in. The film is amazingly frank for its era and director Elia Kazan wisely pulls back by having long takes which allows his eclectic cast to propel the film forward with their performances alone.
Although the setting is Kansas it unfortunately wasn’t filmed there and thus fails to capture the majestic beauty of the plains like Picnic did which was based on another William Inge story. The intention was to shoot it there, but due to a drought it was instead done in northern New York near the Catskills, which has a far different climate and topography. The only exterior shot of the town is that of Wilma’s house, which doesn’t allow the viewer to get any idea of the town’s layout or atmosphere.
All around there are some great performances, but Hingle is a standout in what is quite possibly the best role of his career as he owns every scene that he is in. The only unfortunate thing is that it is never explained what caused the character’s very obvious limp.
Barbara Loden who later went on to marry Kazan in real-life is a scene-stealer as well playing Hingle’s rebellious, flapper daughter Ginny. Her meltdown at a New Year’s Eve party is memorable, but the character then disappears midway through and is never seen again. There is an eventual brief explanation of her whereabouts, but I felt a scene with her at the end was definitely needed.
Wood looks quite possibly at her most beautiful here both with long hair during the first half and then with a short cut during the second part. Beatty makes an outstanding film debut. Usually he is best playing detached characters, but here he plays an emotional one and does it surprisingly well.
The film features a high amount of first time performances from actors who all look very, very young. Phyllis Diller can be seen briefly as a nightclub comedienne. Ivor Francis makes his film debut as Wood’s psychiatrist and Sandy Dennis can be spotted as Wood’s classmate while Martine Bartlett makes her debut as an exasperated English teacher. There is also Zohra Lampert as a waitress explaining to Beatty what pizza is while he tells her about Kansas and you can very briefly spot Eugene Roche and even Godfrey Cambridge.
The film makes some great statements about learning to adjust to life’s twists and turns and living in situations that are not the most fulfilling. Inge, who based many of these characters on people he knew growing up, shows a keen understanding for human nature and his script won a much deserved Oscar.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: October 10, 1961
Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube