Let’s Talk About… ‘West Side Story’ (1961)

Film #38 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by Robert Wise

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn

 

I have spent a good deal of my life avoiding musicals both in theatrical and cinematic form. The seemingly endless moments of breaking into song and cheesy dancing always made me feel uneasy. As much as I liked the movie Annie when I was a child, I fast-forwarded through the musical interludes with the possible exception of “Tomorrow”, which every kid of the 80s was supposed to know by heart. So, imagine my own surprise when I started opening up to the genre a few years back. It all started when Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli were simultaneously featured on TCM France, allowing me the opportunity to see a great many of their musical films. I was in amazement to see the fun, at times very romantic, style of dancing captured and to hear songs that were not overly ‘showtune-y’ in style. In fact, some of those films have become some of my favourites.

When I took upon the task of covering West Side Story for the AFI 100 Greatest Films series, I knew that it would be arduous because I have never really cared for the film. I also felt compelled because I knew it was unlikely anyone would want the film plus it just so happened that it was being shown in full HD on television. In my mind, things were somehow falling into place though destiny would end up showing me that my opinion would not vastly change after watching West Side Story again. In fact, I am even more perplexed as to how everyone seems to adore this film while I fail to see what makes this film so special. Yes, it has lovely costumes, a great use of colour schemes and a few nice songs. No, it does not contain the best dance sequences I have ever seen, the greatest acting or leave me with a lasting impression from its social messages. The sheer fact that the film was so critically well-received has been influential in that I have found myself re-playing parts of the film in my mind to see where I may have gone wrong in my appraisal. Did I miss something? Nearly two months have gone by for me to process and digest the film so at least I can say that I have given quite a bit of thought to my assignment. You bet your bottom dollar.

Premise

It is 1957 in New York City. A gang of white American boys called the Jets break into a dance routine whilst covering the area of the neighbourhood that is considered their turf. They cross paths with Bernardo (Chakiris), the leader of a recently formed rival gang of Puerto Rican immigrants called the Sharks, and start harassing him. A fight ensues and despite police intervention, the two gangs refuse to back down, instead later deciding to settle their dispute by having a rumble at a dance. The Jets are confident since they have already successfully kicked out several other gangs that have tried to impede on their territory. To boot, even police inspector Lieutenant Schrank offers his help to the Jets because he is “on their side”.

The Jets

The Sharks

Riff (Tamblyn), the leader of the Jets, goes to see his friend Tony (Beymer) for advice and to recruit his assistance to defeat the Sharks. Tony used to be the Jets’ leader but decided to quit the gang altogether. Though he has reservations about getting involved, he eventually chooses to help and hesitantly attends the dance. Meanwhile, Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Wood), and his girlfriend, Anita (Moreno), are getting ready for the dance in the bridal shop where they both work. Maria has come to the United States with the intention of marrying Chino, a member of the Sharks; a union which has been arranged by Bernardo and for which she is not enthusiastic. When the dance begins, the two gangs stay on separate sides of the room and avoid one another. Something magical happens, however, when Tony and Maria see one another and fall in love at first sight. Bernardo is infuriated and forces to Maria to leave the dance, thereafter setting up another more volatile – and violent – rumble between the Jets and the Sharks.

Although they are both aware of the impossibility of their union, Tony and Maria meet on several occasions and declare their love for one another. One afternoon in the bridal shop, they have a mock wedding where they introduce each other to their respective family members and exchange simple vows. This, in their eyes, somehow means that they are indeed man and wife. Anita is the only other person aware of their romance and she tries her hardest to support Maria’s independence to make her own choices in life, although those notions are laughed upon by the dominant Puerto Rican males who are used to their women being completely submissive. As the rumble approaches, we witness romance blossoming at the same time as we innately sense tragedy looming.

Tony and Maria

Background

The basis of the story is derived from William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet with elements altered to suit certain modern social aspects/issues. In this case, the focus is put on interracial tensions and relations in regards to romance, assimilation and territorial stakes. West Side Story originated as a Broadway play written by celebrated author Arthur Laurents who himself knew many woes of social acceptance living as an openly gay man in an era of Ozzie & Harriet values. His notion of realism helped to make the play hugely successful on the stage. Some critics argue that West Side Story worked better as a stage production than as a film; the latter making the story less believable and ineffective when it came to casting choices. In fact, critical reception of the film was and has remained mixed since its release although it is nearly put on a pedestal by those within the film industry. To this day, it is considered one of the leading film musicals of all time and is certain among the most decorated of them all. Nonetheless, it still receives a considerable amount of backlash from fans and critics alike, not to mention the films’ surviving stars.

One of the biggest areas of debate concerns the casting of Natalie Wood as “Maria” considering that she was not Latina and, moreover, could not sing and dance. If that idea made people scratch their heads back in the day, you can rest assure that it makes people spit fire in this modern day of political correctness. It is true that major studios generally backed away from offering minorities leading parts in films during the Golden Age of Hollywood although trends were slowly changing after the break-up of the Studio System. While this is poorly looked upon today, I argue that those practises are a part of history that we cannot change but from which we can learn and grow. Oddly enough, no one brings up the fact that George Chakiris’ parents were Greek immigrants even though he was playing a Latino. (Ironically enough, he played the role of all-American white guy Riff on the London stage.) To get back to Wood, many actresses were considered for the role but Robert Wise always considered Natalie to be his first choice after seeing a screen test of her as “Deanie” in Splendor in the Grass. She was paid a then-astronomical fee of $250,000 to incarnate the youthful, innocent and beautiful “Maria”. Though Wood rehearsed with the rest of the cast for 12 hours each day, she remained insecure about her skills and was isolated socially from most of the cast who considered her to be snobbish. Rita Moreno did not particularly care for Wood or parts of the production, detesting her terrible Puerto Rican accent and hating that brown face was put on all of the lead Latino characters. Despite all of the preparation, Wood’s dancing was less than stellar and her singing voice so unsuitable that it was dubbed. In fact, her lip syncing was so bad that her voiceover Marni Nixon had to re-record her songs to match Wood’s lips in the final print. All of this is far too obvious in the film which is very off-putting because it diminishes your appreciation of Wood’s performance and it bothers you because it is clearly not her singing voice.

If Natalie got grilled by critics then her co-star Richard Beymer got positively scorched over his lacklustre appeal as a leading man. His portrayal of Tony is indeed rather weak and he does not have the usual leading man good looks than makes women swoon. As things would go, Beymer could neither sing nor dance either and the result of his efforts was as lacklustre as Wood’s attempts. His voice was also dubbed and is terribly noticeable. Both he and Wood were given singing voices that were very pronounced and mature, far beyond the mere teenagers they were supposed to be playing. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno were also dubbed in their singing although Moreno did complete a few of the song and dance numbers herself, the only one of the cast to do so. Discovering these facts and then laying them out like this really makes the casting of the film look and feel cheap. Here we are talking about one of the most celebrated musicals in film history and most of the singing was done ghost singers while the two main leads could not dance to save their lives. What is wrong with this picture?

 

Brief Thoughts

As if I have not added enough of my two cents already in this discussion, I would like to touch-on a few more ideas. First things first, I feel that West Side Story pales in comparison to the grand MGM musicals of the Golden Age when it comes to utilising all-around talent. In those days you had actors who could authentically do it all when it came to singing, dancing, acting, and screwball comedy: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, Howard Keel, and so on. These folks made their mark on the pictures they filmed and created a standard of unique, quality entertainment. Along those same lines, I did not care for the showy, group dancing numbers that were choreographed by Jerome Robbins. I actually like some of Robbins’ earlier work but I do not understand how his work on West Side Story is considered innovative and breathtaking. To me, I see the gang members looking more like they are getting ready for a ballet recital than preparing to wage territorial war. The choreography of Michael Kidd in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tommy Rall and Bob Fosse in My Sister Eileen, and Fosse again in White Christmas appear more complex, not to mention satisfying, compared to the back-up dancer style dance sequences arranged by Robbins. There is at least one moment in the film that is quite nice when Maria and Tony first see each other at the dance and the scene transitions to dark. The dancing is simple and the Wood and Belmer appear slightly wooden at the beginning, but it overall a good scene.

Admittedly, I cannot relate to what it was like to be a teenager in late 1950s New York City, much less as a Puerto Rican immigrant. I purposely chose not to turn this write-up into an analysis of social and political themes because I am not qualified to talk about such things in a factual, non-biased manner. I will say that is intriguing to discover the more traditional, boundary-laden expectations that Puerto Rican men had towards their women and to witness a character like Anita openly challenging those principles.

 

The Future

West Side Story is currently ranked in the 51st spot on the AFI 100 Greatest Films List, down 10 spots from the debut 2007 edition. The film still holds on very strong for its age and has a solid following from dedicated fans. It was recently announced that Steven Spielberg will at some point in the future be doing a remake of the film, reportedly with an all-Latino cast for the Latino leads and the Sharks gang members. This will no doubt bring more attention to the original at least as a basis of comparison, particularly since many people these days are calling Spielberg’s remake a chance to “make things right”. As the saying goes: To each their own.

Natalie during rehearsals

The film will also remain alive largely in part due to Natalie Wood. She was a beloved actress who passed away tragically before her time and under mysterious, perhaps criminal, circumstances. Americans and others around the world hold her in a certain glorified light, as they do for Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, because of this. This interest could be attributed to morbid curiosity as well as a general feeling of nostalgia for a woman so beautiful that she seemed untouchable. Considering that her murder case has been once again re-opened after many years labelled as a cold case, it is likely that the interest in Wood will slightly heighten, especially if any individual(s) is charged in connection with her death.

If you have an interest in Broadway musicals then by all means do check out this film if you have not already done so. Perhaps you will end up with a warmer appreciation and outlook on this film than I did. If not, just smile and remember that the sun will come out tomorrow. 🙂

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