West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet after too many shots of espresso -- frenetic, jumpy, with an inevitable crash at the end. I'm assuming you know how the story ends. If not, this review contains spoilers.
It is one of those films that has a history that is as much fun as the movie itself. A huge hit on Broadway, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got involved. Once word got out that the show was being made into a film, everyone threw his or her hat into the ring.
Elvis Presley, of all people, was approached to play Tony. He turned it down; a decision he would come to regret. Natalie Wood was sleeping with Warren Beatty at the time of the auditions and came in to read opposite him when he auditioned for the role. Robert Wise, the director, immediately fell in love with Wood’s portrayal of Maria and cast her, not her boyfriend.
The film was released in 1961 to muted praise, but huge box office numbers. It remains the second highest grossing film of that year (losing the top spot to One Hundred and One Dalmatians). It was nominated for eleven Oscars and won ten, including Best Picture. Interestingly, although both George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won Supporting Actor and Actress for their beautiful portrayals of Anita and Bernardo, Richard Beymer was not nominated and Natalie Wood was nominated for Splendor in the Grass.
And, there is the problem with this movie. In typical Hollywood fashion, Wise hired pretty people who could act a bit to do a musical. Neither Beymer nor Wood could sing (each was dubbed) nor could they dance. Their chemistry? Nil. Wood’s accent is atrocious and Beymer looks nothing like a hood from the street. If the Romeo and Juliet of this movie miss the mark so badly, why is it such an iconic film and why is it so beloved by so many?
It’s not the screenplay. The dialogue is banal and uninspired, with an ending that is simply too silly. Ernest Lehman, who wrote it, shied away from the truly tragic ending of his source material. Tony’s death is accidental and Maria lives. As the rival gangs walk off, carrying Tony’s body, we are meant to believe that these two groups will now give up their wars and live together in perfect harmony. A lovely, yet completely absurd, thought that undercuts the power of what the ending should have been.
What raises this film to iconic status is the music. Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are perfect and several of the songs in this movie have become classics. Jerome Robbins choreographed the dances and it shows. The sheer athleticism, the exuberance, and the simple fun changed the face of musicals forever. The opening number with the finger snaps is arguably the most famous dance on film. It has certainly been copied and parodied enough times.
Technically, this movie is a masterpiece. Wise’s camera work and use of color is brilliant, using fast cuts and flashes of red and blue to emphasize the action as well as the mood of the individual scenes. The Jets are in pastels; the Sharks are in dark colors. Maria begins the movie in virginal white; she ends it in scarlet red.
Wise did not shy away from the realities of the world he was portraying. The racism and sexism are explicit as is the violence. It all comes to a head in the scene where Anita is threatened and nearly raped by the Jets, the most powerful in the movie.
This is a movie that is far from perfect, yet deserves to be seen by everyone at least once if only to appreciate the magnificence of the dancing. I promise you, at least one of these songs will get stuck in your head for days.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.