West Side Story (United States, 1961)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the musical had become one of the most popular motion picture genres. The list of past hits was impressive, including titles like Singin' in the Rain, South Pacific, The King and I, Oklahoma!, An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Carousel. Consequently, Hollywood moguls were always on the lookout for new source material, regardless of whether it was original or adapted. So, whenever a new Broadway musical captured the public's attention, an attempt was usually made to transform it into a screen event.

West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957, several years after the idea was conceived by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. The concept underlying the play was to transfer Romeo and Juliet to a contemporary setting and present the story as a musical, resulting in an intriguing mix of romance, tragedy, violence, and singing & dancing. Robbins and Bernstein walked a tightrope to keep the elements properly balanced; it would have been easy for one aspect or another to have emerged more strongly than the others, thereby unsettling the entire production. Audiences loved the play. It stayed for two years on Broadway before going on tour then returning to New York for a grand re-opening. Thoughts of a movie blossomed soon after it became apparent that West Side Story was a hit. So, with Bernstein and Robbins working in concert with director Robert Wise, the film version went into production in 1960. After opening in October 1961, it became an international hit and won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The movie transpires in New York's Upper West Side during the late 1950s. The feuding Monatgues and Capulets are represented by rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. The former group is comprised of first-generation New Yorkers whose parents came across on boats during the early decades of the century. Their rivals are Puerto Rican immigrants who are newly arrived in the United States. The constant skirmishing of the Jets and the Sharks is primed to explode into an open war, but not before Tony (Richard Beymer), a founder of the Jets (who is no longer with the gang - he has gotten a job), falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Sharks' leader. In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, these two defy conventions and risk everything, including their lives, to be with one another. And, also as in Shakespeare's play, there are no happy endings.

To its credit, West Side Story does not shy away from difficult issues. It explores both the senselessness of gang strife and the prejudice faced by immigrants. Yet, by today's standards, its views on both seem a little naïve. However, the film's approach to violence is unique. West Side Story is almost bloodless - even the stabbing and gunshot scenes are sanitized. All the fights are highly stylized and divorced from reality. The characters dance around each other while in the process of stalking and attacking. Yet there's a real sense of menace to some of these scenes, due in large part to the choreography and Bernstein's dissonant score. We end up feeling the violence more than seeing it. It doesn't always work - the power of the scenes in which characters die is arguably lessened by this approach - but it enables a grittier story to be told within the musical framework.

The language has also been toned down, and, by today's standards, seems positively quaint. I'm not a big proponent of needless profanity, but hearing silly euphemisms inserted to replace certain obscenities makes occasional lines of dialogue laughably absurd. Street characters talk tough; they always have and they always will. West Side Story makes them sound like choir boys. Certain lyrics also had to be softened to appease the censors. "Gee, Officer Krupke" loses a bit of its edge as a result.

It's clear that the cast for West Side Story was not chosen on the basis of pure acting ability. The female lead went to Natalie Wood, who was a big box office draw after earning an Oscar nomination for Rebel Without a Cause. And, although Wood gives a strong enough performance, it's legitimate to argue that she was miscast. An extreme suspension of disbelief is required to accept her as a Puerto Rican, and her shaky accent doesn't help. She doesn't look the part; in fact, based on appearance, she would have been more at home as a Jets girl than as lovestruck Maria. Wood also did not do her own singing. That duty fell to professional voice dubber Marni Nixon, who had previously handled similar duties for Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) and Deborah Kerr (The King and I). It's no wonder that Maria sounds so much like Eliza Doolittle.

The role of Tony went to toothy Richard Beymer, who didn't have much of a career before or after West Side Story. (Fans of the cult series "Twin Peaks" might remember him, however, since he had a recurring part as lodge owner Benjamin Horne.) The reason is simple - he's not a very good actor. His performance in West Side Story is exaggerated, which works well in the musical sequences, but strikes the wrong note more than once in the quieter, dramatic moments. He and Wood also don't display much chemistry. However, Beymer is athletic and shows good timing and fluid movement, which makes him a natural for the dance numbers. Like his co-star, his vocals were dubbed (by Jimmy Bryant).

The supporting players were, like Beymer, selected based more on dancing ability than acting acumen. Not surprisingly, this contributes to the strength of West Side Story's musical numbers while limiting its effectiveness in traditionally dramatic circumstances. Russ Tamblyn (who would join Beymer in the "Twin Peaks" cast, as Dr. Jacoby) portrays Riff, the leader of the Jets, and is one of the stronger talents. His dancing is superlative and he was allowed to sing for himself. Rita Moreno, a native Puerto Rican who has enjoyed a solid career as both an actress and a singer/dancer, is Anita, Maria's best friend. She won a Best Supporting Actress for her work here. Surprisingly, Moreno, who has a good voice, was dubbed for one song. Finally, George Chakiris matched Moreno with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Bernardo, Maria's brother and the leader of the Sharks. Those with a keen eye may recognize John Astin in a small part as a dance organizer (this was three years before "The Addams Family").

Of course, as is always the case with a musical, West Side Story is at its best when the characters are singing and dancing. Bernstein's score is rich and memorable, and of the roughly twelve songs on the soundtrack, three are standouts. Two of them, the romantic ballads "Tonight" and "Somewhere," are instantly recognizable standards. The third, arguably the most energetic number, is the six-minute "America." In addition to being a favorite, the song also includes West Side Story's strongest element of social commentary. It is set up as a give-and-take between the Puerto Rican women, who cling to their dream of America as a land of promise, and the men, who have been disillusioned by the limited job and housing prospects for immigrants. One line, "Skyscrapers bloom in America, Cadillacs zoom in America, Industry boom in America," is countered by "Twelve in a room in America." Likewise, the response to "Life is all right in America" is "If you're all white in America."

Effective singing is matched by strong dancing in West Side Story. Jerome Robbins' role as choreographer was so crucial to the film's success that he was give co-director status, even though most of the traditional "direction" was accomplished by Robert Wise (who would go on to helm The Sound of Music). The dancing capabilities of the cast pays off in several complex, brilliantly-executed sequences, including a spectacular twelve-minute opening, the back-and-forth of "America," and the edgy "Cool." Meanwhile, Wise handles the task of melding the standard dramatic elements with the musical ones. He is also responsible for the inclusion of the film's first group of shots: a breathtaking aerial tour of Manhattan, circa 1960.

Visually, West Side Story is a treat. While the audience's focus is undoubtedly on the soundtrack, Wise and cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp (The Great Escape) give the film a unique look that recalls, but does not accurately replicate, Manhattan's West Side during the late '50s. Some scenes were shot on location, but most of the work was done on elaborately constructed soundstage sets. The print features some of the richest colors to be found in any '60s widescreen production (the photographic process was Super Panavision 70). Closeups of Wood and Beymer are used effectively to highlight their growing attraction.

Until Baz Luhrmann attempted a highly unusual take of Romeo and Juliet using snatches of Shakespeare's original dialogue in a radical setting, West Side Story remained the best known and most atypical modernization of the Bard's tale. And, even though the movie version of the stage production does not play quite as well today as it once did, it still represents a brave and effective fusion of serious and fantasy elements, and offers two and one-half hours of solid entertainment. Admittedly, there are times when West Side Story strikes a campy or discordant note, but those instances are overbalanced by the more frequent moments when it offers its own brand of cinematic magic.

West Side Story (United States, 1961)

Run Time: 2:32
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1