Tuesday, October 4, 2011



The best picture win for WEST SIDE STORY would mark the fifth time that the academy awarded a musical, the first since 1958's GIGI.  But this was a musical unlike any of the other winners; a bittersweet story of doomed love mixed with a critical look at modern racism and the difficulties of urban life.  Although the film falters in some of its casting (Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican?), it has dynamic dance scenes, terrific songs, and a moving love story; of all the musicals to win the best picture award over the years, I think its the best.
It genesis began in 1949 when writer Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins envisioned a musical update of Romeo and Juliet set in modern times.  Originally it was going to be about an Italian Catholic boy and a Jewish girl falling for each other, but a boom of Puerto Rican immigrants arriving in New York in 1954 caused them to change the characters to a Polish Catholic boy and a Puerto Rican girl.  With Laurents writing the book and Robbins directing, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, and  future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics.  The show opened in 1957, and, capitalizing on the popularity of "troubled youth" stories like 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE,  was an enormous hit, even if its dark subject matter and borderline profane lyrics ("when the spit hits the fan") were the cause of some controversy.  United Artists producer Walter Mirisch was a fan of the show and purchased the rights for the studio.  Robbins was originally hired to direct the musical and dance scenes, while veteran director Robert Wise was to handle the non musical parts of the film.  Trouble began quickly, as Robbins's exacting perfectionism caused the film to go over budget, and he was eventually fired after directing only four numbers. (He would still be credited with co direction of the film, for which he would eventually win a best director award with Wise).   Wise himself would also push the film over budget as he wanted to shoot as much of the film as possible on location in New York.  Despite all the difficulty, the film turned out to be a big hit, costing around $7,000,000 and bringing in around 50; it's soundtrack would also prove to be very popular.
Set in New York City, it tells the story of two rival teen gangs, the Caucasian Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakaris), who are fighting over turf.  Meanwhile, former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) and Bernardo's sister Maria (Wood) meet and fall in love at a dance.  When the two gangs plan a rumble, Tony goes to try and stop it, but when Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills him.  Tony hides out with Maria, and the two of them plan to run away together, but Tony is shot and killed by one of the Sharks.

The Sharks and the Jets face off

One of the scenes Robbins directed is the terrific opening that shows the escalating tensions between the two gangs almost entirely through action without dialogue.  The use of New York locations, along with quick cutting and unusual camera angles, clearly shows that Robbins was determined to give audiences something more than a direct filming of the Broadway show.  I love the way that the macho strides of the boys almost naturally lead to dance moves, and the way that dance choreography and fight choreography seem to blend together (an idea used again during the rumble).
While I think that every musical scene in the film is a success, my personal favorite is the "America"sequence, performed on a rooftop by the Sharks and their girlfriends; along with being a great showcase for  the  lively dancing of Rita Moreno's character Anita (she won a best supporting actress award for the role),  the song plays as a clever debate between the boys and girls as to the wisdom of immigration, an unlikely subject for a Broadway song that Sondheim's clever lyrics illustrate beautifully.  Another Sondheim highlight are the hilarious lyrics to "Office Krupke", wonderfully performed by Tamblyn and the rest of the Jets. 
I've already mentioned that I consider Wood miscast as Maria, but I must admit that every time I time I see the film, her performance wins me over; she and Beymer certainly make an attractive couple, and it's hard not be charmed by the scene where the two of them act out a pretend wedding in a dress shop.  I also admire the way she played the tragic final scene, with her anger and sadness becoming almost palpable.  So, even if her Caucasian background makes her unbelievable, and her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon (to be fair, all of the singers in the film were dubbed at some point by other people, except for Chakaris), it's hard to imagine the film without her.  As for the rest of the cast, I think they are all perfect, with Tamblyn's James Dean like tough guy Riff being a real standout (his acrobatic dancing is certainly impressive).

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer
I'm always surprised by how dark this story is for a musical; really, the only really blameless characters in the film are Maria and Doc (Ned Glass), the drug store owner. (We like Tony, but he does kill Bernardo in anger). The cycle of violence between the gangs seems inevitable, while the police officers, usually the most moral characters in a story like this, are ineffectual, and downright racist.  And while it is clearly shown that the criminal behavior by the Jets is due in part to the poor environment of their families, nothing can excuse the way that they torment Anita towards the end of the film, hurling racial epithets at her and stopping just short of rape (apparently this was a very difficult scene for Moreno to shoot, and understandably so!).  Really, the film's only bright spot comes after Tony's death, when both the Jets and the Sharks sadly carry his body away, implying that they might finally stop their fighting.


I think it's obvious that I love this movie, and while THE HUSTLER and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, are also great, I can't argue with the Academy on this one.