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Splendor on the screen

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  July 29, 2009

Like A Face in the Crowd, SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (August 1 + 3 at 7 pm) is overwrought, with an amateurish Natalie Wood performance. Still, it's a powerful movie; if you saw it as a teenager you probably haven't forgotten it. William Inge wrote the screenplay, unofficially a 20th-century American take on Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. Wood and Warren Beatty portray the high-school small-town Kansas sweethearts whose puritanical Middle American upbringing prevents them from following their instincts and consummating their relationship, with catastrophic consequences that are somehow simultaneously ludicrous and poignant. It's not possible to separate out the good and bad parts of Splendor in the Grass, which has marvelous sequences (many of them propelled by Pat Hingle's terrific performance as Beatty's crude, oil-rich dad) and a heady, emotional lyricism.

Of Kazan's final films, only the three-hour AMERICA, AMERICA (1963; August 2 at 7 pm), which is based on the real-life tale of his uncle's efforts to reach these shores, is worth seeing, though THE VISITORS (August 15 at 9:30 pm), a low-budget 1972 film scripted by his son Chris, is a curiosity. It was shot on 16mm with a hand-held camera and unknown actors (including the young James Woods), and it's one of the few movies made during the Vietnam War that attempted to address it directly. America, America is a failure, mostly because of the inadequacy of the leading man, Stathis Giallelis, but it has an engaging narrative and many beautiful scenes, to some of which Kazan takes a folk-fable approach unlike anything he tried in his previous movies.

Great American directors often find themselves, late in their careers, making feeble attempts to repeat their former triumphs. Kazan kept experimenting. The fact that these last efforts didn't take off shouldn't make the end of his moviemaking life seem lame and pathetic; you have to have nerve to try something like The Visitors at the age of 62. Neither should they diminish his achievements, which, as displayed in the HFA series, are dazzling.

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