I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1961 winner, West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, and starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
A musical retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The movie critiques societal divisions more than it does young love. Like the bard at his best, West Side Story depicts interesting, sympathetic characters, who are subject to tragic flaws. The film both dazzles the eye and touches the heartstrings in a timeless tale.
The film's competition for Best Picture that year were: Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, and Judgment at Nuremberg.
In addition to Best Picture, the film took Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Chakiris); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rita Moreno); Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven and Victor A. Gangelin); Best Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fargo); Best Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff); Best Director (Jerome Robbins and Richard Beymer); Best Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Best Music, Scoring of a Motion Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); and Best Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon Sawyer).
This was the first time that two directors shared a Best Director Oscar, and it wouldn't happen again until Joel and Ethan Coen shared the award for No Country for Old Men (2007). The difference was that Joel and Ethan Coen shared the directing chair throughout, while Jerome Robbins directed four numbers (the prologue, "Cool," "I Feel Pretty," and "America") before being removed from the project. He was fired because his propensity for reshooting scenes in a quest for perfection led to the movie going over budget and falling behind schedule. Initially, Jerome Robbins, who was also the choreographer, was supposed to direct the dance sequences and Robert Wise would direct everything else, but he had to helm the remaining dance sequences, as well.
Whereas Romeo and Juliet took place in medieval Italy, West Side Story is set in 20th century New York City. Instead of rival political families, the star-crossed lovers have associations with ethnic gangs (the Jets and the Sharks), who are competing for dominance of the streets. The film is based on a musical that played for two years in New York, but the order of many of the songs, including some lyrics, were changed for the film.
Those familiar with the Shakespeare play will recognize key scenes, such as the balcony scene, where Romeo (in this version, Tony, played by Richard Beymer) woos Juliet (Maria, played by Natalie Wood), sneaking stolen moments despite the disapproval of their families and friends. They will also note some significant differences, such as a different twist on the ending (which I won't reveal here).
Whereas the tragic flaw of both Romeo and Juliet were primarily their youthful naiveté and impetuosity, West Side Story focuses on the tragic flaws, so to speak, of society. Songs like "America" (video here) address issues like racial equality, prejudice and immigration, while "Gee, Officer Krupke" (video here) examines the problem of youth crime and violence. Both songs effectively use humor to make their case.
In a sense, society is an extra character in the movie, serving as the driving force behind the action of all the characters, from Maria and Tony to the rival gang members. In order to add to the on-set tension, the filmmakers tried to keep the Jets and the Sharks separate, although Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff, said he knew of at least one "Jet" who was roommates with a "Shark" throughout filming.
The musical portions of West Side Story are masterfully done, blending modern dance choreography with memorable songs to enrich the telling of the tale. While Shakespeare's plays often center around powerful soliloquies, West Side Story gains its emotional impact from its musical numbers. Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics have become classics, with anthems like "Somewhere" (video here), "Maria" (video here) now instantly recognizable. In fact, the bubbly "I Feel Pretty" (video here) served as a recurring joke in the Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler film, Anger Management.
It's not surprising that the film brought home so many Oscars. All aspects of the production, from the colorful sets to the costumes, add to the film's impact. Bright colors during optimistic moments contrast with deep shadows in sadder moments. The color palettes of the rival gangs show their allegiance: yellow and earth tones for the Italian-based Jets, and reds and purples for the Puerto Rican Sharks. By contrast, when the young lovers meet, at a community dance, Maria wears white, a color that is both neutral and symbolic of her purity and innocence.
Natalie Wood is well cast as Maria, the sometimes ebullient, sometimes demure love interest of Richard Beymer's responsible yet sensitive Tony. They have a believable chemistry on film: seemingly feeding off each other's energy and rising together on a buoyancy born of young love. Natalie Wood, however, did not sing her character's song but, instead, was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Anna (Deborah Kerr)'s singing voice in The King and I (1956) and Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn)'s singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). Richard Beymer's singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant.
Rita Moreno, who had already appeared in nearly two dozen films and as many television productions, finally received wide acclaim for her role as Maria's friend, Anita, the fiancée of Maria's brother, Bernardo (George Chakiris). As Anita, Moreno steals the scene whenever she's in it: sarcastic, strong and wise beyond her years (not to mention a fantastic dancer). While Rita's singing voice was dubbed by Betty Wand for "A Boy Like That," which was below her range, she sang "America" and "Quintet" herself.
While most of the film is shot on sound stages, the opening dance sequences were shot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Lincoln Center stands today. The area had been condemned, and the buildings were in the process of being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. Demolition was delayed so that the film sequence could be completed.
Many writers and directors have attempted to adapt and update classic Shakespeare tales. Few of them, however, have worked on as many levels as West Side Story. It's a testament to the lasting strength of this film that it remains widely known (and frequently parodied) today. Though made nearly 50 years ago, West Side Story resonates with today's viewers as deeply as Shakespeare's oeuvre, 400 years after they were written.
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
A great story plus amazing songs makes for a classic film.