Monday, July 1, 2013

1961 - West Side Story

I'm back. Another long hiatus, I know. It's hardly worth acting surprised about it any more. I won't bother with excuses. Nor will I make empty promises that it won't happen again. Instead, let's get straight into our next review.

It's the eventual Best Picture winner from the 1961 race...

West Side Story
Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Ernest Lehman
(based on the musical play by Arthur Laurents & Jerome Robbins)
Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
10 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno)

Inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story moves the action from medieval Verona to contemporary New York City, and the Montagues and Capulets are replaced by two rival street gangs - the Jets, a bunch of white American hoodlums, led by Riff (Tamblyn), and the Sharks, made up of immigrant Puerto Ricans, led by Bernardo (Chakiris). The star-crossed lovers of this tale are Tony (Beymer), Riff's best friend who has had enough of gang life, and Bernardo's sister, Maria (Wood). Upon meeting at a local dance, the two fall in love at first sight (literally) and pursue a romance despite the disapproval of their respective friends. Oh, and it's a musical.

Film musicals have a certain undeniable theatrical style that takes some getting used to and West Side Story is no exception. In fact, in this case, the style takes a little more getting used to than normal, since not only are we asked to accept that people will burst into song and dance to express their feelings, but we are asked to accept that tough guys will burst into song and dance to express their feelings. And despite their menacing demeanour, there's something decidedly nonthreatening about suavely dressed men gracefully dancing down the street. It's also tough to take a fight scene seriously when the brawling participants are executing perfect pirouettes.

Having said that, the dance sequences are certainly fascinating art, thanks to the unique innovation of Jerome Robbins' choreography. Add to that Leonard Bernstein's memorable music and Stephen Sondheim's witty lyrics, and you've got yourself some delightful entertainment. And the cinematography complements it all beautifully, capturing the musical numbers in a way that live theatre could never do. In fact, what works so well here is the fact that, while the picture is undoubtedly theatrical, it makes the most of its medium, rather than merely filming a stage show. Many scenes take place on location on the streets of New York, and there are some interesting visual effects (for its time), particularly when Tony and Maria first meet. As the two lovers lock eyes, they lose focus of everything that is happening around them, as does the camera image. Tony and Maria are in sharp focus while the image surrounding their bodies is a complete blur.

For those familiar with Romeo and Juliet, it's a fun exercise in how to adapt a Shakespeare play for a modern setting. Although the ending is mathematically only half as tragic as the original, most of the famous scenes are still there but given a contemporary twist. The unmistakable balcony scene, for instance, takes place on a fire escape (pictured).

When assessing the performances, one has to factor in the tendency of films of yore to embrace a somewhat melodramatic style of acting, coupled with that same tendency in musicals of any era. But while some of the performances are hammy, there is enough genuine heart here to offset any histrionics. Of particular note is Rita Moreno who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, the girlfriend of George Chakiris' Bernardo. Chakiris himself nabbed the award for Best Supporting Actor. Also worth a mention is the underrated Simon Oakland, who delivers a superb turn as Lieutenant Schrank, the hard-nosed cop who doesn't take any crap from anyone. And John Astin, better known as TV's Gomez Addams, is fun in his uncredited role as the dance hall leader.

All up, West Side Story took home a whopping 10 Oscars from 11 nominations. Ernest Lehman's adapted screenplay was the only loser. The directing team of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins shared the Best Director gong, the first time the award was presented to more than one person. In addition, Robbins also received a special honorary award the same year for his contribution to choreography on film.

1 comment:

  1. In 1961, after living my first 14 years in Brooklyn, our family joined the exodus to the suburbs (Long Island). One of the many adjustments I had to make, was not being able to take the subway to Manhattan to see a road show movie. For this reason I didn’t get to see West Side Story until well into 1962. At the time, I didn’t understand the infatuation it received from The Academy, thinking it was another Gigi. When I finally saw it, I understood. It’s probably still my favorite musical. Granted, there’s a lot of suspension of belief needed to accept the theatrical nature of the movie. I have a movie buff friend that absolutely can’t stand it. He says it’s probably due to his college roommate playing the soundtrack album incessantly. (He was Officer Krupkied to death.) I just love the score. Leonard Berstein gave the world of theater and cinema just a small portion of his genius, but at least it’s something.

    A whole article could be written on the dubbing that went on. Besides Marni Nixon’s singing for Natalie Wood and Jimmy Bryant for Richard Beymer, other performers did only partial singing, e.g. Tucker Smith (Ice) dubbed Russ Tamblyn for The Jet Song. I never would have guessed that. Somehow, the melodies and choreography helped disguise it. The beautiful balcony (fire escape) scene works despite the dubbing and the fact that Natalie Wood really wanted boyfriend Warren Beatty to play Tony.

    With gang movies like End of Watch so vividly and violently expressed in today’s cinema, West Side Story seems almost a quaint period piece now. Yet, there’s still nothing quite like it.