WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

  • Directors: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
  • Writer: Ernest Lehman, based on the the stage musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • Starring: Natalie Wood, William Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, Eliot Feld, Jose De Vega, Jay Norman, Susan Oakes, and Yvonne Wilder
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#51), 11 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Best Supporting Actor – George Chakiris, Best Supporting Actress – Rita Moreno, Best Score, Best Cinematography – Color, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction – Color, Best Costumes – Color, Best Sound, Honorary Award – Jerome Robbins), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There is a version of West Side Story, not so different from the movie we have, that might be my favorite movie ever made. You can see it in there, and watching the thing remains something I can do repeatedly over the course of my life. However, it suffers from some major flaws right at the center. For one, it centers around a conflict between two street gangs, the Jets (made up of white kids) and the Sharks (made up of Puerto Rican kids), but casts only a couple of actual Hispanic actors (including, thankfully, Rita Moreno) as the Puerto Rican characters, instead choosing to have about half the cast (including Natalie Wood and George Chakiris) in some pretty obvious brown-face for the whole movie. 

This could be written off, I suppose, as a product of its time, but in my opinion the movie actually has a more fundamental problem, which is that it centers around the two least interesting characters in the movie as star-crossed lovers I doubt many audience members actually care about. There’s a reason that Chakiris and Moreno took home Supporting Oscars, while Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood did not receive nominations. This leads to some bits of the movie (the opening fifteen minutes or so, or the song “America”) being some of the best bits in the history of the movies, and other extended sections of the movie just being hard to churn through.

Quick primer for the uncultured: West Side Story was a musical from the dream team of Leonard Bernstein (who did the music) and Steven Sondheim (who did the lyrics), that had been directed and choreographed on Broadway by Jerome Robbins when it debuted in 1957. It very loosely re-told the story of Romeo and Juliet, transplanting the lovers to modern-day Manhattan and replacing the warring families with ethnic street gangs. When bringing the musical to the screen, MGM hired Robbins but, as he had no movie experience, brought in the veteran Robert Wise as co-director. Ever since, film buffs have tried to parse out who was responsible for what in the movie, but both men shared the Oscar for directing, becoming the only team to win the award until the Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men in 2007. The movie’s signature is the way it has the two gangs “fight” each other through elaborate choreography. There’s spoken some dialogue (more than, say, in a Webber musical) but the whole thing feels like a musical, even when there’s no actual singing going on.

Natalie Wood received top billing as young, innocent Maria, though her singing voice was dubbed by the great Marni Nixon. She was the biggest star in the movie but honestly seems like its weakest link. Richard Beymer (who had just played Peter in the best-known movie version of The Diary of Anne Frank) plays her erstwhile lover Tony, and is mostly… fine. These two are far outshined in intensity and emotion by George Chakiris, who plays the Shark leader Bernardo, and Rita Moreno, pretty much the only actual Puerto Rican in the cast, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante. They seem to be in an entirely different, better movie than the leads. Russ Tamblyn plays the Jet leader “Riff” (a lot of the characters have faux-cool 50s nicknames) with a sort of earnest street toughery that works perfectly well in context. Tamblyn had as solid a career as anyone in the cast, which included an Oscar nomination for Peyton Place. He would also star in Wise’s next film, the horror classic The Haunting.

There are several very well-known songs in the movie (In addition to “America,” there’s “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” all of which people who have never seen the movie or the stage musical are likely to know from various other places), but really the heart of it is the acrobatic, extremely high-energy dancing. When I first saw West Side Story many years ago, it was this aspect, the “real world” actions reimagined as dance, that really blew my mind. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who is skeptical of musicals because “people just don’t break into song in real life,” this might be your least favorite. Instead of having music break into the world at occasional intervals, it reimagines the world as this weird musical hybrid. There are some fairly straightforward musical numbers, but those aren’t the bits of this movie people actually remember.

Another thing I think draws me to West Side Story is that most musicals, particularly of this era, were in essence comedies. That is to say, even if they take themselves seriously, things mostly turn out all right in the end. West Side Story is based unapologetically on a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s an essentially negative outlook. These characters are trapped by problems they absolutely can’t escape. In feel, it’s very interesting, even though the script can never quite find the words to express those feelings. “You kids, you make the world lousy!” cries the drugstore owner Doc (Ned Glass), which is general level the dialogue here is pitched at. It’s a very weird contrast in that this a story with aspirations of street-level realism where characters are unironically using phrases like “gee whiz” and “oh boy!”

This year is the 60th anniversary of the release of West Side Story, which may be why we’re now getting a remake directed by none other than Steven Spielberg (scheduled for release this December). Spielberg says the movie is one of his favorites, and that the soundtrack was “the first non-religious music allowed in our home” when he was growing up. Interestingly, based on the first trailer, it seems to be a fairly straight-up remake, without many changes. Which I suppose will please a lot of people, but if so, why even do it? If I was Steven Spielberg, I would not be eager to be doing straightforward remakes of other people’s movies at this point in my career, but I suppose that’s why he’s Steven Spielberg and I’m not. Anyway, that version has apparently cast actual Hispanic actors as the Hispanic characters, so that’s good, including, apparently, Rita Moreno as a “reimagined version” of Doc the soda jerk. I suppose we’ll see.

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