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Dissecting the Classics – West Side Story

February 16, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
West Side Story

This week, I set about the rather difficult challenge of finding an appropriate movie to cover for Valentine’s Day. My favorite romance movies are Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, which I’ve made a commitment to cover with Michael Ornelas in our column. Besides that, pure romance movies aren’t generally my thing. My favorite romances tend to be background elements in bigger stories (Casablanca, for example) or else stuck in a genre film (The Princess Bride). That is the case here, as while the romantic element of West Side Story certainly drives the plot, it isn’t the most compelling aspect of the movie.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

West Side Story

Wide Release Date: October 18, 1961
Directed By: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Written By: Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents
Produced By: Robert Wise
Cinematography By: Daniel L. Fapp, A.S.C.
Edited By: Thomas Stanford
Music By: Leonard Bernstein and Irwin Kostal
Songs By: Leonard Bernstein (composer) and Stephen Sondheim (lyricist)
Production Company: The Mirisch Company and Seven Arts Productions
Distributed By: United Artists
Natalie Wood as Maria Nunez
Richard Beymer as Tony Wyzek
Russ Tamblyn as Riff Morton
Rita Moreno as Anita Palacio
George Chakiris as Bernardo Nunez

What Do We All Know?

William Shakespeare is one of the most influential people on theater, and thus one of the most influential people on the movies as well. There have been many adaptations of his works, from the incredibly direct to the very, very loose (The Lion King was my introduction to the basic story of Hamlet, for example). But there isn’t another Shakespearean movie quite like West Side Story. The 1957 play is an Americanized retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with the feuding families of Capulets and Montagues replaced with New York City gangs in the 1950s; the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks and the white Jets. The title lovers are replaced with Tony, founder of the Jets, and Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks leader Bernardo.

Released at a time when musicals were still a popular genre at the movies, West Side Story outgrossed all but one film that year (Disney’s 101 Dalmatians) and walked away with ten Oscars including Best Picture, including Best Supporting Actress/Actor turns for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Which probably felt like vindication after the play lost to The Music Man at the Tonys. As arguably the most celebrated musical in history, it’s more than worthy of the spotlight.

What Went Right?

Sometimes I don’t really need to dive deep into why a good movie is good. West Side Story has good building blocks to work with; Romeo and Juliet isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but it’s still very good and has an easily understood structure. And for those of us not super well versed in Shakespearean dialogue, having the then-modern American setting was a smart move that also gave them the freedom to do new stuff with the material. The Sharks and the Jets have a compelling narrative; they aren’t just two families feuding for no real reason, they are teenagers in a gang war that is explicitly motivated by racial and class tension. And Tony and Maria are also interesting characters who fall outside the gang war for different reasons.

Another strength of the film is that the musical format allows for narrative short hand. Tony and Maria don’t need to have an in-depth romance; we feel how they feel for each other through “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty”. Need to have a lengthy debate about how Puerto Ricans living in New York feel about the pros and cons in their situation? You’ve got “America”. Want to make your street punks more sympathetic without compromising their bad attitudes? “Gee, Officer Krupke” has got you covered. And there’s the “Tonight Quintet”, which is one of the best mid-show arrangements in the genre. Songs convey emotion in a heightened way and allow you to push the narrative further along quickly – it’s hardly a surprise they were such a standard in Hollywood for so long.

But something that might be lost for those who haven’t seen the stage show is just how different this version is. For an example, the songs “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” are sung in opposite acts, which is a smart choice in my opinion; it gives Riff more dimension before he’s killed, and “Cool” just fits better as a recovery from that incident (and gives Ice a strong claim to being the new leader). More substantially, the song “America” is completely redone, giving the composer and lyricist a chance to improve on their work. What was once a rather tacky put down of Puerto Rico is now a poignant song about the opportunity America represents and the unfortunate lack of opportunity for ethnic minorities.

Lastly, while this film is hardly what I’d call an “actor’s movie”, there are a handful of exceptional performances in it. Rita Moreno is a genuine legend (one of twelve people to have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony) and steals the show as Anita. George Chakiris’ Bernardo is cool and confident in confronting the Jets, but shows a completely different side of himself when interacting with Maria and Anita. Russ Tamblyn is fantastic as Riff, serving as both a believable tough guy and having the film’s most effective physical comedy in “Gee, Officer Krupke”. Speaking of him, WIlliam Bramley, Simon Oakland and Ned Glass are great in their supporting roles, and one can’t overlook the contributions of Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, who sang for Maria and Tony respectively.

What Went Wrong?

As a 1961 movie adapting a 1957 play featuring primarily teenage boys of less than upstanding character, there’s more than a few lines of dialogue that aren’t going to play to the sensibilities of a good portion of today’s prospective audience. That just happens sometimes. Also, I don’t consider it a flaw, in the same way I don’t really consider this sort of stuff in The Breakfast Club to be a flaw. Sometimes asshole characters need to be portrayed as assholes. If it bothers other people, I get it. But for me, it just goes with the territory.

What I don’t particularly care for is the casting of Natalie Wood as Maria. Natalie Wood has a perfectly fine screen presence and was definitely one of the biggest young stars of her era. But there’s no reason for this role to be played by an actress of Russian-Ukrainian descent. It pretty much undermines the entire point of the movie. And yeah, I’m sure there’s people who will argue with me on that, but I’m not going to budge here; Maria should not have been played by a white actress who looks vaguely “ethnic enough”.

Lastly, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that I think the song “Cool” doesn’t really work anymore. I mean, it still works in context of the narrative, as I discussed earlier, but as a piece of music it leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe it worked all right at the time, but for me, it drags. For a musical, the songs are arguably the most important scenes, so having a song not work is a pretty big problem.

And In Summary…

West Side Story is a true rarity; an improvement on Shakespeare. Now it’s true; while Romeo and Juliet is fine for what it is, it’s hardly Shakespeare’s best. But what Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents were able to do was transfer the basic story to a more interesting setting. The mostly uninteresting feud of the Capulets and Montagues becomes a gang war that captures the burgeoning teenage culture of the 1950s as well as American racial tensions. The Sharks and the Jets have their own issues, their own anxieties, and we get to know them and sympathize with their plights. The romance of Romeo and Juliet becomes less prevalent in the story but no less relevant; indeed the idea of irrational hatred stomping out love becomes a bit more poignant with the racist overtones. As a story, it’s just an all around better version than the original.

The movie is far from perfect and not quite timeless, but is still excellent. I feel like it’s one of the quintessentially “American” movies, looking at the optimism of the American Dream and giving it an appropriate amount of cynicism. Most of the songs are good to great, there’s some excellent supporting performances, and the changes from the play are pretty much always improvements. If you love musicals already, you probably already love this movie. If you hate musicals, this probably won’t change your mind. But if you’re neutral on them, I strongly suggest checking this out because it is just one of those must see shows, not just because of its legacy, but because of its quality.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night

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