Here, though, Kazan is examining not just the psychological obsession that young people have with sex, but the often uncomfortable or misguided ways parents attempt to address their children’s unfamiliar and (sometimes) uncontrollable desires.
Set in the late 1920s, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty, in his big screen debut) are high school sweethearts. They’re madly in love but they’ve never gone “all the way” and it’s due in large part to the (conflicting) messages the two receive from their respective parents.
Deanie’s mom (Audrey Christie) says that “no nice girl” has those sorts of feelings for a boy and that a woman should really only be interested in sex so that she can have children with her husband. Mrs. Loomis encourages Deanie to abstain because doing so will increase her chances of being able to marry Bud one day. Bud’s oil baron father, Ace (Pat Hingle), however, encourages his son to abstain because doing so means avoiding the possibility of impregnating Deanie.
What results is a path of physical and mental degradation. It seems a little over-the-top at first glance (Bud collapses on the basketball court whereas Deanie eventually ends up in a mental institution), but upon consideration it seems that Kazan is going after a visual representation of what’s happening on internally.
Bud is exhausted from trying to contain his physical urges and keeping up the appearances his father insists upon. Deanie, meanwhile, is driven mad by so many conflicting emotions, desires and relationships. It’s a little ham-handed, but given the limitations censors would put on subject matter of this sort back in 1961, Kazan was likely stymied in how he could approach all of this.
If nothing else, Kazan should be commended for tackling a seldom discussed subject and the performances are universally great. Wood is very good here (she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination), playing up the vulnerability and confusion tumbling inside Deanie. It’s Beatty, though, who shines brightest. He really sells the notion of Bud wanting to do the decent thing and be respectful of his girlfriend and father (even if he doesn’t fully agree with the latter’s wishes and desires) but who doesn’t fully understand the urges driving him.
Who is most to blame here? Is it the kids for putting too much weight behind their own shortsighted emotions? But at the same time, their parents provide such stark and wildly conflicting messages when it comes to sex and responsibility, no wonder these kids are confused and angry and are ready to explode. Kazan rightly offers no easy answers or explanations.
It’s been fascination and engaging going through but a few of Kazan’s films, but now it’s time to move on. Join me next week as I begin a new “Catching Up On …” series on the films of John Cassavetes with a review of “Shadows.”