Monday, February 4, 2019

West Side Story (1961): A Review (Review #1178)


West Side Story, a musical updating of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, not only translates well from the dusty streets of Verona to the gritty streets of New York City but makes the idea of rival street gangs being proficient in ballet plausible. With incredible music and masterful directing, its few sins can be masked.

The Anglo street gang of The Jets face a rival for control of the streets in the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. Their leaders Biff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris) hate each other, with the hatred seeping to all their members. Biff has had enough of Bernardo and decides to challenge the Sharks to a rumble for ultimate control. This challenge will be offered at the gym dance despite the gym itself being neutral territory.

At the dance Bernardo brings his girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) and his younger sister newly-arrived from the island, Maria (Natalie Wood). Biff has asked his BFF Tony (Richard Beymer) to side with him at the challenge, even though Tony is an inactive member. Tony and Maria see each other and fall instantly in love.

This love cannot be for a variety of reasons, but true love will not be denied. Tony thinks he can bring peace between the Jets and Sharks, but in the rumble he tries to stop Biff is accidentally killed by Bernardo. Shocked and angered, Tony ends up killing Bernardo. Both groups are horrified at how things have spun so out of control, and despite her love killing her brother, Maria understands and stands by Tony. Even Anita grows to understand that love does irrational things.

The hatred and mistrust between both groups, however, still continues. Tony hopes to leave the West Side with Maria, but a series of misunderstandings, along with an attack on Anita by the other Jets, lead to his death. Maria, devastated and now filled with hate herself, threatens them all, but in Tony's death and Maria's genuine heartbreak, there is the hope that these two houses can reconcile.

Image result for west side story movieWhen you look at the songbook West Side Story has, you marvel at just how extraordinary, even revolutionary the music was.

The Jet Song 
Something's Coming
I Feel Pretty
One Hand, One Heart
A Boy Like That

That is a testament to the true musical genius of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as almost each West Side Story song does what good musical numbers do: further the plot or give character insight. We have the playfulness of I Feel Pretty, the swagger of The Jet Song, the intensity of Cool. We also have a group of intensely romantic songs from the love-struck ode to Maria to the almost mystical One Hand, One Heart and hopeful Somewhere.

As a side note, I find that West Side Story is about the only Sondheim musical where the lyrics are not as esoteric and extravagant as most of his other work, though to be fair I don't know the entire Sondheim catalog.

I think the only song that doesn't work at all is Gee, Officer Krupke, which the Jets sing while waiting for the Sharks to negotiate terms of the rumble. Given that most of the West Side Story songs are generally emotion-driven (hope, anger, passion), this comical piece seems wildly out of place. It doesn't move the plot at all as does the Tonight Quintet (where various characters sing of their plans) or give us insight into their thoughts as does Maria or I Feel Pretty.  It just sits there, a diversion that isn't that diverting.

West Side Story has brilliant use of jazz, particularly in the Gym Dance scene and its astonishing 15-minute ballet opening with almost no dialogue from co-director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Even within this sequence, we establish story and character through the Jets and Sharks interactions. The film's other director, Robert Wise, showed his own prowess in the Gym Dance scene when he isolates Maria and Tony visually amid the wild Mambo number, and it's a credit to his background as editor that the shifts from the Mambo to the romantic interlude to the ending all flow smoothly.

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There is one number that has never sat well with me, though I understand it's one of the most popular ones, and that is America. I've always been ill at ease with America, and a large part of it stems from the fact that I, unlike Bernardo, Anita and Maria, am a son of an immigrant versus an immigrant. As such, while I can respect the song's mix of upbeat music and downbeat lyrics, I never had such a dark view of America as expressed by Bernardo.

Speaking of dark, I think one of Wise's worst decisions involved the makeup. Chakiris, of Greek descent, has an olive completion that would have worked well as the Puerto Rican Bernardo. However, in keeping with a bad tradition he along with the other Sharks was made up to look much darker, so much so that the actual effect looks both unnatural and obvious. We can't quite set aside the fact that most of the Puerto Ricans were not played by actual Puerto Ricans or even by Hispanics, but by using such dark makeup on them the overall effect is cringe-inducing.

As an actual Hispanic, I find the dark makeup on Chakiris and the other Sharks (even the handful of Hispanics) to be insulting. Moreno and the other Puerto Rican women's makeup was not as exaggerated, making them more natural-looking. It was par for the course in these years to paint Hispanic characters with wildly exaggerated dark skin: Giant and Touch of Evil also literally paint Hispanics in excessive and unnatural skin tones.
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There is also the issue of casting. This goes beyond the casting of the Russian Wood and Greek Chakiris as Puerto Ricans, shaky accents and all. It goes to actual performances. Rita Moreno is the clear standout as Anita, who transcends any notions of a 'Latina Spitfire' to make her into yes, a passionate character, but also a very wise and understanding woman. Anita is aware of people's natures, so while she is displeased with Maria consorting with the enemy, she also knows Maria is a girl who likes a guy.

Chakiris, struggling accent aside, is also good as Bernardo from the moment his intense eyes signal the anger he carries as a macho but marginalized man. He also has good moments where he is the caring brother and slightly put-upon boyfriend.

Most everyone else though struggles. Wood did her best but sometimes her Maria, bad accent and all, struggled to make Maria into an authentic young woman discovering life and love in America. She was dubbed by Marni Nixon, and while I've been critical of Nixon's posh delivery here she also goes along with the Puerto Rican accent, sounding less realistic. In Somewhere, Nixon's stab at sounding Puerto Rican is just about comical.

Beymer's Tony was not bad but not great. Tamblyn was embarrassing as Riff: one never knew if his put-upon 'Nuw Yawk' accent was meant to be comic or serious.

Tucker Smith as Riff's lieutenant Ice out-shined him so much on all levels: singing, dancing and acting, that one wondered why Riff and not Ice was the Jets' leader. His big number in Cool showed him take full command, and he was the only one not participating in the silliness of Gee, Officer Krupke. Eliot Feld was also delightful as Baby John, the sweet and naive Jet who still read comic books and was oblivious to the erotic nature of the Gym Dance number, happily hopping along with his date while everyone else did the PG version of a bump and grind.

Looking at it now, I think West Side Story might be seen as slightly dated, almost comical with its lingo of "Daddy-O" and faux accents. It might make people not willing to surrender to the idea of musicals chuckle at how these somewhat clean hoods could dance through the mean streets on New York. However, as a film and as a musical, West Side Story really towers over so many now-forgotten musical films. It's mix of romance, action and drama, coupled with a nearly perfect songbook and score, brilliant directing and choreography all shape West Side Story into being a brilliant film.


1962 Best Picture: Lawrence of Arabia

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