August 28, 2012
List of Shame: West Side Story (1961)
Next week, I'll begin a marathon of some films that I've yet to see from the AFI's Top 100 Films list. While I don't put too much stock in any official look at the "best" movies of all time, it provides a solid framework for catching up with older classics. West Side Story sits at #51 on the 2007 version that marked the 10th anniversary of the original rankings. It also took home the Best Picture Oscar in 1962 and won nine other Academy Awards. It's an acclaimed film, but it's remarkable to note its dominance of so many categories. Although it loses some modern audiences, West Side Story remains one of the seminal musicals.
What's this story about?
Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) meet at a dance and fall in love, but there's a big complication. He's affiliated with the Jets, the white gang in New York City, while she's Puerto Rican. Maria's nationality connects her to the Sharks, who are led by her brother Bernardo (George Chakiris). The gangs have a War Council to determine how to resolve their differences. Tony and Maria are completely smitten and want to get married, but everyone around them is against the relationship. When a skirmish becomes tragic between the gangs, no one is safe when chaos takes over the streets.
Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
I hate to sound like a broken record with this response once again, but the length was a big factor in keeping me from seeing this movie earlier. It isn't easy to set aside the time to watch a 152-minute musical. I don't mind this genre and think it can be glorious if done well, but the variation of the Romeo and Juliet formula didn't sound like an exciting story. Still, I knew it was a film that should be seen given the tremendous acclaim and awards.
Does the story hold up well today?
West Side Story requires modern audiences to accept a lot to stick with a silly story. While there are iconic scenes and recognizable songs, the tone shifts from scene to scene. The slower romantic songs from Tony and Maria are lifeless and grind the pace to a halt. It doesn't help that both Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood's voices are dubbed. The hatred of the Jets and Sharks doesn't make sense because we have little evidence to support it. They all like to dance and sing; shouldn't that be enough? The culture clash is the main difference, but it takes more than a few lines to explain why they should battle. While ethnocentrism remains today, this isn't the type of movie that delves into these issues.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
This isn't really a fair question for a movie that's more focused on spectacle than providing in-depth characters. That said, there are some energetic performances once you look beyond the two leads. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are both excellent as Bernardo and Anita on the Sharks side. He's a likable guy who can't get beyond his feelings of disrespect from the Jets and U.S. in general. Moreno's a powerhouse and steals every scene where she appears, especially those with Wood. Both received Oscars and deserve the spotlight from this cast. Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby!) is the highlight on the other side as Riff and recognizes that it's supposed to be a fun movie. Unlike the awkward Beymer, he finds the right tone for the role. The biggest issue with Wood as Maria is her inconsistent Puerto Rican accent. It seems overly strong in one moment and then disappears in the next scene. This makes it hard to focus on what's happening on the screen.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
This movie works more as a collection of scenes than a complete movie. The highlight is easily "America", an exciting tune that gives a much-needed energy boost. Moreno and Chakiris are at their best during this song, and they give infectious performances. The Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics combine perfectly here and deliver a memorable sequence. The difficulty is that there aren't enough parts that come even close to this level. "Gee, Officer Krumpke!" is a fun scene and "Tonight" is iconic, yet neither transcends the genre. Looking at the plot, the big dance where Tony and Maria meet is well-done. Everything else grows blurry and leaves them transfixed from across the room.
How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
This is a tricky question for such a highly regarded film. I enjoyed watching West Side Story and think it has great scenes. However, I also found it long, overly dramatic, and pretty ridiculous. The Jets are possibly the least convincing street gang in movie history. The tragic side of the plot doesn't really work and feels out of place among the songs. Even with these reservations, it's definitely worth seeing for anyone delving into the classics and the musical genre. It's surprising to realize I knew many songs without ever seeing this movie. They've become a part of pop culture and remain prevalent today.