The Best Picture Project — West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story poster.jpgDirected by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn

I never really noticed it before, but musicals can be pretty dark.  On the surface they seem all happy and shiny because they tend to be in the bright sunshine, have the singing and dancing, and a generally joyful sensibility.

Underneath, though, they can go to so real terrible places.

Cabaret – the movie and musical – touch on abortion, anti-semitism, homophobia and pretty much everything Nazi.  The Sound of Music has the Nazis, too, even if it leaves the most disgusting parts of them in the shadows and basically reduces their evilness to conscripting Captain Von Trapp into the navy again.  Oliver! has poverty, larceny, domestic violence and murder.  (Also, food, glorious food!) Chicago has domestic violence, infidelity, perjury, murder and more murder – not exactly the types of topics we’d normally sing and dance about.

As dark as some musicals are, in some ways West Side Story has them beat – though, to be fair, any movie with genuine Nazis in it is by definition worse.  Still, West Side Story has racism and sexism in spades.  Plus it’s violent – physically, economically and culturally.  Not to mention there’s a pretty disturbing near-rape and assault of Anita (Rita Moreno) near the end that made me squirm and wonder what sort of movie I wandered into.

In general, I don’t find the underlying themes of most musicals any worse or better than most other films – even the Best Picture winners.  Line them all up and throw a stone and you can probably find a heaping helping of sex, violence, murder and the Nazis.  In Schindler’s List, you kind of expect it.  In the all-dancing, all-singing West Side Story, it’s a little more jarring.

What’s It About?

West Side Story is a simple riff – and I mean simple – on Romeo and Juliet, translating the story from 15th century Italy to 1960 New York, renaming the parties as Tony and Maria.  And rather than have the story follow the children of warring families, it follows members of gangs of opposing races: whites and Puerto Ricans.  Which means the dramatic tension comes not from any actual and well-founded hatred between the two sides, but from stupid racism and prejudice.

So, How Was It?

In a word?  Uneven.

The opening section of the film – perhaps the first half hour – is the best.  It’s the part not burdened with Tony and Maria’s ‘romance’ and ‘love’, which any halfway-intelligent person will find ridiculous.  (Come on, nobody over the age of 12 falls in love in a single day with somebody they haven’t met before and even if they did, it would not be to the extent as Maria and Tony).

In fact, it occurs to me know that one huge difference between the best parts of the movie and the others is the absence of Tony and Maria – ruminate on that a while.

The opening section is also the part of the film hot bound up inside a studio.  Opening with an aerial shot over the city, scored only to the whistles from the gang, we see the neighborhoods and buildings below and get a sense that this is real.  That what we see is genuine and visceral and immediate.  It feels alive.

Then, coming out of the aerial shots, the camera stays in the neighborhood – the real neighborhood – giving us a taste of the turf the gangs operate on and having the gangs operate on them.  In other words, we get the sense that what we see is real.  Or as real as possible considering the gangs basically dance-fight all over the neighborhood.

This section, the opening section, was by far the most imaginative, with compositions chosen well to compliment the music.  The entire world of the opening section was so attractive – in it’s way – I truly hoped we’d stay there and maybe, just maybe, get the first genuine, grounded-in-life musical.

But then…

But then about 25 minutes in, the movie moves into the studio – and the Tony and Maria story takes over – and the movie loses steam.  On the one hand, Tony and Maria can be blamed because Richard Beymer as Tony lays a thick coating of bland on everything, and Natalie Wood, playing Maria in brown-face almost as offensive as Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi and with an accent that’s the Puerto Rican equivalent of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, is just plain awful.

But on the other hand, the real problem is the film moved into a studio.

Granted, I understand why the film went indoors to film the rest of the movie – it takes place at night and it’s easier to control for nighttime indoors.  And by easier, I mean cheaper.  But cheaper also means enduring another layer of artificiality on an already-artificial setup.  And given musicals are the most artificial of movies, anything that can be done to break the artifice is welcome.

Unfortunately, the artifice prevailed and with it, came boredom.


Lousy as Woods and Beymer are as Tony and Maria, there is no accounting for how magnificent George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn are.  Them or Rita Moreno.  Any time they come on screen the film lights up – as much as it can – only to drop dead the second we shift over to Maria and Tony.

Since No One Else Will Say It

Since no one else will say it, I will – Romeo and Juliet is ridiculous.  For crying out loud, it’s a story of two 13 year olds falling in ‘love’ and killing themselves over the course of a couple days.  The reason the story has to revolve around 13 year-olds?  Because most adults don’t behave that erratically and immaturely.  Adults get into, and out of, lust all the time but as a rule they don’t thereafter mistake the heat of the loins for anything more than what it is.

Where film adaptations go wrong is that, while the play should be about 13 year-olds, the leads are inevitably played by adults.  Or the parts themselves are made chronologically, but not emotionally, adult.  Which makes the ridiculousness of the story all-the-more ridiculous.

The closest we’ve ever gotten to genuine kids is maybe the Baz Luhrman and the Franco Zefferelli versions and even in those versions the action and timelines are spread out a bit so that, even though it’s still unbelievable how soon the leads fall in ‘love’, you can maybe buy into it.

West Side Story, though, doesn’t stretch the timeline, it compresses it, only undercutting just how ridiculous everything is.

As An Aside

I use the word ridiculous a lot.  It’s a habit I have to break.  Note to self: find a new word.

Questions the movie left with me:

Where are the black people?

Where are the Asian people?

Where are any of the other people that aren’t white or Puerto Rican?

Yes, I get it, this movie is not about an all-out race conflict, but is limited to this little one.  But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a little more diversity now and then.  After all, if New York is ground zero of this big melting pot we call America, and if this movie is truly about race, doesn’t it make sense to see at least one other ethnicity wander through at least once?

Northbynorthwest1.jpgOne Thing Is Clear To Me

The Oscars hate Ernest Lehman.  Think about it:

Writes one of Hitchcock’s greatest films – North by Northwest – loses the screenplay Oscar to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day vehicle, Pillow Talk.

Writes the screenplay for West Side Story and while the film manages to win everything other Oscar it’s up for – ten in all, I think – it loses screenplay to the rather-turgid, Judgment at Nuremberg.  That one almost feels like a slap in the face.

Later, he is nominated for writing and producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a very daring film at the time, and is scooped in both categories by A Man For All Seasons.

Never mind he couldn’t get a nomination for his work on The Sound of Music or The King and I, both of which were heavy Oscar hitters in their day.

And never mind they wound up giving him an honorary Oscar shortly before his death.  All the honorary Oscars in the world can’t make up for the fact the Oscars hate Ernest Lehman.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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