West Side Story

“You kids make this world lousy! When will you stop?”

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.


Mark Greig said...

Agree with everything you said, Chris. The leads are cardboard and the script isn't that great, but this is still a classic thanks to Wise's direction, Bernstein’s score, Sondheim’s lyrics and Robbins' choreography.

mazephoenix said...

Yes. One of my favorite movies despite the weak leads. Rita Moreno easily steals the show. And the music makes the story work.

Kathy said...

I like this movie, and I think it's because of what you point out--

I love Natalie Wood, but, yeah, she's incredibly wooden and the accent she's attempting is atrocious. The lead actor is so unmemorable that I've already forgotten what his name is.

But, I absolutely LOVE Rita Moreno in this one. And George Chakiris is awesome. The dancing is wonderful (I love dancing!)

But, I do like this one, probably because I like the stage musical. The songs! Oh, the songs! "Tonight" is unbelievably wonderful. Especially the reprise. Man...

(I have this movie, and one of my hobbies is to look up trivia on IMDb and Wikipedia and anywhere else I can find trivia about movies that I have. And there's a very sad story in Rita Moreno's background that I'm not going to relate here. Let's just say that she was reduced to tears in the taunting scene, and the actors playing the Jets immediately ruined the take by hugging her and assuring her that the audience would hate them for what they were doing in the movie to her. Which I kind of think is so sweet!)


Billie Doux said...

ChrisB, thanks for this terrific review. And Kat, thanks for that Rita Moreno story.

This is a wonderful movie (my mother was deeply into musicals, so I think I've seen them all) even though it most certainly has flaws. The opening number with the finger snaps still gives me chills -- the dancing throughout the entire movie is world class, and I've always been fond of Russ Tamblyn for some reason. Rita Moreno deserved her Oscar.

I've always liked Natalie Wood in pretty much anything. Yes, her accent is pretty bad and she didn't do her own singing (that was Marni Nixon, who also did Audrey Hepburn's singing in My Fair Lady), but she could act. I can't quite picture Elvis Presley as Tony, but hey, at least he could sing. One of the problems with Elvis was that he was always Elvis. It would have been Elvis and Maria, not Tony and Maria.

ChrisB said...

What a wonderful story, Kat. Thanks for posting that.

Elvis and Maria may have been an improvement, Billie.


Billie Doux said...

I guess so, if you like Elvis Presley. I never liked Elvis Presley. For me, casting Elvis in West Side Story would have been like casting Shirley Temple in The Wizard of Oz. It would have made it into "an Elvis Presley movie".

There's no question that Richard Beymer was poorly cast, though.

Billie Doux said...

I think the word I was groping for there was "vehicle". :)

Juliette said...

I was going to make what I'm sure would have been a truly fascinating comment about one or two of the songs being moved for the movie and preferring the movie's order, but I've forgotten which ones they were. I Feel Pretty and Gee Officer Krupke maybe? Anyway, I love the film, especially the dancing street gangs in the opening. How they ever made that work, I don't know, but they did.

Jess Lynde said...

I think it was 'Gee Officer Krupke' and 'Cool.' I like the movie order better, too. If memory serves, they moved them around because the "moods" of the songs integrated better around the death of Riff in the movie order. Certainly "Cool" plays better as an emotional response to that death.

Like many others, I adore this movie, no matter its weaknesses. The songs and dancing are so great that they more than compensate for everything else. I sometimes pull out the DVDs just to watch the musical numbers.

And even though I didn't really watch the series all that much, I always got a huge kick out of Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer both being on Twin Peaks because of their roles in this film. :)

Jess Lynde said...

I probably should have put a comma in that last sentence. I didn't mean to imply they got their roles on Twin Peaks because they were both in West Side Story. It just amused me that Tony and Riff were Mr. Horne and Dr. Jacoby.

Mark Greig said...

Jess, I did not know that, and now I'll never be able to watch the film in the same way again.

Jess Lynde said...

Oh, dear. I hope the knowledge enhances the experience for you, Mark. Or, at the very least, I hope it doesn't lessen the joy of the direction, score, lyrics, and choreography!

Mark Greig said...

Guess I'll have to watch it again and find out.

mazephoenix said...

I also wouldn't have liked Elvis in this. I like him well enough, but his star power would have made it Elvis, not Tony.
Sweet story about Rita Moreno. Poor thing.
I'll always remember her Muppet show episode as well.

Marianna said...

I'm a musician, and this is one of the few pieces that I'm confident that no matter how many times I play it I will never get tired of it. As much as I like the dancing, it's the music that gets me every time, especially Marni Nixon's singing.