Splendor in the Grass (1961): Making of Kazan’s Masterpiece–Casting Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood

In 1961, Elia Kazan introduced Warren Beatty in his first screen appearance with a starring role in Splendor in the Grass, with Natalie Wood; the film was nominated for two Oscars and won one.

Peter Biskind points out that Kazan “was the first in a string of major directors Beatty sought out, mentors or father figures from whom he wanted to learn.” They “were wildly dissimilar—mentor vs. protégé, director vs. actor, immigrant outsider vs. native son. Kazan was armed with the confidence born of age and success, while Beatty was virtually aflame with the arrogance of youth.”

Kazan recalls his impressions of Beatty: Warren—it was obvious the first time I saw him—wanted it all and wanted it his way. Why not? He had the energy, a very keen intelligence, and more chutzpah than any Jew I’ve ever known. Even more than me. Bright as they come, intrepid, and with that thing all women secretly respect: complete confidence in his sexual powers, confidence so great that he never had to advertise himself, even by hints.

Biskind describes an episode during the first week of shooting, where Beatty was angered at something Kazan said: “The star lashed out at the spot where he knew Kazan was most vulnerable, the director’s friendly testimony before the HUAC. He snapped, ‘Lemme ask you something—why did you name all those names?'”

Beatty recalled the episode: “In some patricidal attempt to stand up to the great Kazan, I arrogantly and stupidly challenged him on it.” Biskind describes how “Kazan grabbed his arm, asking, ‘What did you say?’ and dragged him off to a tiny dressing room … whereupon the director proceeded to justify himself for two hours.” Beatty, years later, during a Kennedy Center tribute to Kazan, stated to the audience that Kazan “had given him the most important break in his career.”

Beatty’s costar, Natalie Wood, was in a transition period in her career, having mostly been cast in roles as a child or teenager, and she was now hoping to be cast in adult roles. Biographer Suzanne Finstad notes that a “turning point” in her life as an actress was upon seeing the film A Streetcar Named Desire: “She was transformed, in awe of Kazan and of Vivien Leigh’s performance … [who] became a role model for Natalie.”

In 1961, after a “series of bad films, her career was already in decline,” notes Rathgeb. Kazan writes that the “sages” of the film community declared her as “washed up” as an actress, although he still wanted to interview her for his next film:

When I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered ‘young wife’ front a desperate twinkle in her eyes … I talked with her more quietly then and more personally. I wanted to find out what human material was there, what her inner life was … Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it. Poor R.J., I said to myself. I liked Bob Wagner, I still do.

Kazan cast her as the female lead in Splendor in the Grass, and her career rebounded. Finstad feels that despite Wood never receiving training in Method acting techniques, “working with Kazan brought her to the greatest emotional heights of her career. The experience was exhilarating but wrenching for Natalie, who faced her demons on Splendor.” She adds that a scene in the film, as a result of “Kazan’s wizardry … produced a hysteria in Natalie that may be her most powerful moment as an actress.”

Actor Gary Lockwood, who also acted in the film, felt that “Kazan and Natalie were a terrific marriage, because you had this beautiful girl, and you had somebody that could get things out of her.” Kazan’s favorite scene in the movie was the last one, when Wood goes back to see her lost first love, Bud (Beatty). “It’s terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it,” writes Kazan. “And I certainly didn’t need to tell her how to play it. She understood it perfectly.”