Friday, May 30, 2014

West Side Story (Best Picture 1961)

I don't know where to start with my review of West Side Story. This film and its music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents had many music albums, but only two from musicals: this motion picture sound-track, and the Broadway cast of "My Fair Lady." So I always knew the songs. I don't remember when I actually saw the movie for the first time...junior high school or high school, I guess. Now I have seen it at least half a dozen times. And as with any great movie, I see and appreciate something different every time I watch it.
The story is simple: two rival gangs vie for control of their shared neighborhood. The Jets were there first, made up of the sons of Polish immigrants. The Sharks is the the newer Puerto Rican gang, fighting tooth and nail for everything they can get. Tony from the Jets falls in love with Maria, sister of the leader of the Sharks. They try to get their people to change their ways, but as the story is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet", you should not be surprised that this, too, ends tragically.
If you have never seen this film, please borrow it from the library and watch it. The characters are vibrant, the action is exciting, and the songs are memorable. You may not like the way the gangs dance around town; my wife actually hates it because she thinks it is too artificial. I think it is stylized and symbolic, like most ballets, and I can appreciate the sheer workmanship required for the "Prologue" dance to work. If you agree with my wife, however, skip the first five minutes and watch the film from where the story actually starts. All of the rest of the dancing and singing is more "natural," if I may use that term. Hating the way the gangs jump and snap their fingers to the music shouldn't prevent you from appreciating the rest of the film. The dance in the gymnasium, for example, is a simple high school dance, just choreographed to perfection.  "I Feel Pretty" and "The Jet Song" and "America" are just the characters bursting with energy. They are staged just like any other Broadway musical song-and-dance number. The "Prologue" may seem stylized, but these other numbers seem "natural" in the sense that they could have occurred in films like An American In Paris or Gigi. Or maybe that's just me.

This production was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Robbins was the creative force behind the original Broadway show, and was hired to choreograph the dance sequences for the film. He is responsible for the entire "Prologue" and "Cool" sequences. He was such a perfectionist, however, that the producers fired him before the movie was complete. Robert Wise had to complete everything, including the remaining dance sequences. Luckily all of the dances had already been choreographed, so it is still mostly Robbins' vision that made it on to the screen.
A few random thoughts about the movie. When I was younger I loved the excitement of the production, and the music, and the color scheme and "look" of the film. I loved how the "Prologue" was obviously filmed on location in NYC, and I kept watching to see if any of the later scenes were, too. Unbelievably, all of the tenements and highways were set-stages in Hollywood (the playground was obviously a set). I loved how the Sharks were red and purple, and the Jets were blue and yellow.
I think the actors are all uniformly excellent. Natalie Wood as Maria is not only beautiful but totally believable as Maria. She has the most work to do during the film, starting as naive and virginal but ending as strong and forceful. I'm surprised she was not nominated for an Oscar. Richard Beymer as Tony has less screen presence, and although he is totally believable as the gosh-dern lover of Maria, it's harder to see the deep strength that he had to have had to start the Jets in the first place. Russ Tamblyn as Riff, the leader of the Jets, does have that certain presence, though. There is something about him so that whenever he is on screen your eye just naturally follows him. Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo both won Best Supporting Oscars for their roles.   
As for the story, as a Caucasian man married to a Japanese woman, the theme of hope in the face of bigotry strikes me right in the heart. "Somewhere" can bring a tear to my eyes, even now. And as an American who has lived in a foreign country, I love the song "America," which compares the fantastic "road is paved with gold" idea with the more cynical (or realistic) idea "you have to fight for what you want." It's a great song; one of many. Stephen Sondheim went on to write many other Broadway shows, but in my opinion none are as good as this, his one-and-done partnership with Leonard Bernstein.
The opening sequence, where the city of New York is filmed from above as if from a bird's eye view, was director Robert Wise's idea. Nowadays this sequence doesn't represent anything special, but at the time it was evidently unique. And speaking of unique, watch the closing credits. They are the most interesting I have ever seen. In fact, you actually end up *wanting* to read them. How often can you say that about any credits, let alone the closing ones?

Of the 34 Best Pictures I have reviewed so far, West Side Story and Casablanca are my all-time favorites. If you haven't already done so, please see this film.

West Side Story
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1961*
Produced by Robert Wise
Directed  by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Based on the Broadway show 
produced by Robert E. Griffith & Harold S. Prince
Book by Arthur Laurents
Play conceived, directed, and choreographed by 
Jerome Robbins

I couldn't find a trailer that didn't mention the 10 Academy Awards
so I picked this one. It looked newer, but it features more of the whole overall feel.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Guns of Navarone
The Hustler
Judgment at Nuremburg
I have seen Judgment at Nuremburg, which is a fine court-room drama about the nature of Evil. It was nominated for four acting awards as well as director and screen-play; it won Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Screenplay. The Guns of Navarone is a fun adventure film about an international troupe out to destroy Nazi war guns. It stars Gregory Peck and David Niven, among others. The Hustler is Paul Newman's wonderful pool hall drama; he was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Schell. I had never heard of Fanny, but when I went to research it I found it to be an odd dramatic comedy (?) about an older man in love with a younger woman who is in love with a sailor. And it stars Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron., thanks.

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