Splendor in the Grass

Whereas in the cases of Jim Stark and Terry Malloy the characters evolve to elevate themselves, Deanie Loomis makes the opposite transition.  In the beginning of the film, she is commended by her parents and the school for being a good example for her peers—until she loses her senses over her boyfriend.  The audience has its first encounter with Deanie in a scene that sets the tone for both the entire film’s premise and for her character’s position on the impending sexual revolution. In this scene, Bud and Deanie make-out in his car in front of a waterfall until finally Deanie tells Bud to stop.  From this first encounter Deanie’s stance on the subject becomes quite clear: no matter how much they may want to, respectable teenagers in love must abstain from premarital sex.  The costuming and setting surrounding Deanie serve as external representations of her internal discovery.

The next time we see her (Bud drops her off at home); Deanie is wearing a white dress embroidered with little yellow flowers under Bud’s red letter jacket, which covers almost her entire chest.  The dress emphasizes not only her youth, but also her naivety and innocence.  This costume reflects a Deanie who refuses to succumb to peer pressure, desires to sustain her good-little-girl image for just a while longer. For now, that is what the costuming represents: who she is in this moment; who she has been until this moment. This is the costume of a teenage girl who stands out by following society’s rules in a time when the majority of her age group rejects them.

In addition to the costuming in this scene, the setting is instrumental in conveying Deanie’s identity from the screen to the viewers.  The positioning of Deanie throughout the entire film echoes the phases of her life starting with this scene.  No matter what state of mind she is in, Deanie is always hidden slightly, from her observers both inside and outside of the fictional world she lives in, by doors.  For instance, in this picture, Deanie stands directly in the threshold, a literal position that can be interpreted metaphorically.  Deanie is, at least for a moment, standing in the threshold between Bud (her provocative boyfriend) and her parents (who encourage her naivety).  Barely any time passes before she closes the door and heads to her bedroom, thus temporarily preventing any radical actions from coming to fruition.

The theme of innocence, sustained by Deanie’s various outfits throughout the beginning of the film, is juxtaposed by the theme of corruption.  There is a vast difference in the fashion of the girls who choose to abstain and those who choose to corrupt not only themselves, but also their partners.  There are two main females who represent this group in the film: Juanita, who is infamous as the most promiscuous girl in school, and Ginny Stamper, Bud’s volatile older sister.  Juanita’s revealing costumes contrast heavily with Deanie’s matronly (yet traditional) ones.  For instance, in this picture, Juanita is wearing a loud mixture of costume beads draped over her low-cut, patterned shirt.  Directly behind her sits Deanie wearing a solid colored button-down shirt that barely shows any skin.  Ginny’s costumes work in tandem with Juanita’s; they are obnoxious and demand attention.

The last time we see Deanie in an extremely conservative outfit coincides with the onset of her mental breakdown.  As she walks through the halls and notices everyone staring at her, Deanie wears, once again, a red sweater over a white top, except this time, the shirt also has a lace collar that covers her neck.  After learning what has transpired between Bud and Juanita and suffering a mental breakdown during class, Deanie returns from the hospital to find herself lost—in terms of both her fashion and her identity.  For this brief period, Deanie wears either nothing or a robe until she decides to drastically cut her hair and become the kind of woman Juanita is; the kind of woman Bud left her for.  It is interesting to note that Natalie Wood was also experiencing a mental breakdown in her life.  As author Gavin Lambert describes in his biography Natalie Wood, the role of Deanie began Wood’s career as an adult actress at a time when she was “emotionally fractured,” adding another dimension to her character’s motivation (Lambert 159).

To begin her revenge, Deanie goes to the dance with Bud’s friend and teammate, Toots, dressed to provoke all the boys in something a promiscuous girl would wear: a silky, ill-fitting red dress with long, dangling matching beads. When Toots come to pick her up, it is important to observe that she is once again standing in a doorway.  Will she actually go (acting on her impulses) or will she choose to stay home (sparing herself the emotional trauma)?  Not only has Deanie mentally changed, but her style has gone from emulating upright women like her mother to imitating offensive girls like Juanita. Although she agreed to go to the dance with Toots, her true intentions of going are revealed when she forces herself on Bud outside in the alleyway.  This time, however, it is Bud who tells Deanie to stop, turning this scene into a filmic parabola that bookends the first one.  This encounter becomes the straw that irrevocably damages Deanie’s emotional and mental capacity, serving as her parents’ motivation to commit her for three years at a mental institution.

The final shift in Deanie’s journey takes place in the last third of the film, which documents her recovery.  As we can observe, her fashion choices finally indicate the stability she feels.   Upon her last session with her psychiatrist, Deanie’s outfit reflects the compromise she has arrived at in her mind: she can be proud of herself for adopting the modern wardrobe without conceding who she is. Her outfit here consists of an elegant, royal-blue skirt and jacket set, coupled with a subtle lace shirt, a pearl necklace, and a wide brim white hat.  This outfit would seem to reflect a stable Deanie, if it weren’t for her positioning as she leaves the office.  This is another scene in which Deanie stands in the threshold, and it is the thought of Bud that forces her into this position. This indicates to the viewers that however hard she tried,   Deanie could not forget the passion of her first love.

The final time we see Deanie in a doorway is when she visits Bud after leaving the institution.  She has kept the wide brim hat and the pearls, but has changed (after some thought) from the blue suit to an elegant and modern white dress.  Unlike her white dress in the first scene, this dress is plain but still manages to express her character’s inner thoughts: she has finally accepted the changing society and her place in it.  Instead of standing in the doorway to leave the room, she is standing in the doorway of his house to enter it.  This minor detail also emphasizes how much the end of the film serves as a parallel to the beginning of it.  She is ready to face her past, to face the man who (all-but) destroyed her, to face herself.  The smile on her face as she drives away from Bud, from what she knows will be the last time she will see him, is the physical expression of the mental peace Deanie now feels. It is only now that she can truly appreciate her journey, when she has confronted her past, has made peace with who she was, and has finally found who she is.

Victoria Johnson

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