Here is my part to the musical blog-a-thon on Encore's World of Film & TV ! Enjoy!
I thought for quite some time which movie musical I would discuss here. There are so many I love and the term ‘favorite’ is actually very complicated – should I discuss the one that I watch the most, the one I think is the best, a guilty pleasure?
At first, I thought I would discuss about Oliver! since this a movie that usually gets a lot of hate but I really enjoy it. But in the end I decided to go with this familiar classic (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) because West Side Story has a very special place in my heart: for me it was the movie that started it all – my love for movies, my love for the Oscars and my love for musicals. There was a time when I watched this movie basically every day and I decided to see more ‘classics’ and musicals. And when I found out that the movie won 10 Oscars, I was happy and impressed and decided to learn more about those Oscars. West Side Story was also the first musical I saw on the stage and I was looking forward to it more than to Christmas.
Anyway, this discussion is about West Side Story. If there is anyone who doesn’t know the story yet (but could there be?), here’s a little summary: it’s about two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are typical all-American boys while the Sharks are immigrants from Puerto Rico. They fight each other for the dominance on the streets and things turn tragic when Tony, the former leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. When I mention that the story was modeled after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet it’s probably clear very soon that things will not end well.
One of the trailers of West Side Story says that ‘Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger’. This is actually very true and only half the truth at the same time. West Side Story is full of these contradictions. Is there another movie that is so dated and so timeless at the same time? So flawed and so flawless, all at the same moment?
When a musical is transferred from the stage to the screen, there are various ways to do that: one can change it so it completely exists in its new environment (like Chicago) or one can use the new medium while also keeping the stage roots intact (like Oliver!) . In the case of West Side Story, it was probably the work of Jerome Robbins to keep it as close to the stage as possible. Even though the movie begins with very impressive shots of New York from above and the gangs are dancing through the wide streets of the city, the movie always keeps a rather ‘inside-feeling’ and the possibilities that the movie screen gives never seem used or wanted.
Even during those dances on the street, the movie always keeps the feeling of a filmed stage production which basically is one of the reasons why the movie is so dated and timeless at the same time. This is basically the deciding matter if one will love or reject the movie – if one can accept dancing street gangs, then the movie will give a you a lot. If you think they look ridiculous, then the movie is simply not for you. Dancing street gangs are certainly something that works much better on the stage – in the theatre, it’s much easier to accept certain things and to see it for what they are in an obviously make-believe environment. In a movie, it’s much harder to combine the elements of a musical with the reality of the medium. And so, instead of really trying to change the tone of the musical for the screen, the whole production was mostly just transferred without betraying its roots. One has to accept this, one has to accept that dancing street gangs are simply artistic expressions. In the world of West Side Story, aggression, brutality, repression are expressed in dance – it’s a musical, after all! And it’s thanks to the brilliant choreography of Jerome Robbins that these dances are still a joy to be seen and so wonderfully express all the emotions of the characters. As I said, dated and timeless. That’s West Side Story.
The movie also suffers from the heavy-handed dialogue and sometimes hard-to-believe actions. Again, it’s much easier to believe that two people fall in love from the first sight on the stage. In a movie, it comes across as unrealistic and the movie version makes all the flaws in the dialogue that Tony and Maria speak during this first meeting very noticeable. Again, it’s up to the viewer to either accept it or reject it. Flawed and flawless. That’s West Side Story.
And the movie also suffers from the simple fact that the two leading characters, the one that should carry the story, are never as interesting as the supporting characters. Especially Tony is an extremely underwritten and confusing character as it’s hard to believe that this naïve and almost totally inexperienced baby-face could once have been the leader of a street gang. In the case of the movie version, this thin writing is combined with the miscast of Richard Beymer who obviously has the talent to play Tony. His desires, his pain in the final scenes, his love for Maria, it’s all done extremely well but one can’t get past the fact that he is totally wrong the part, physically. It’s like casting Danny DeVito as Stanley Kowalski – it doesn’t matter how much talent the actor has, sometimes looks do matter.
Maria is certainly the more interesting character of the two and this also underlines the fact that both the play and the screen adaptation seem to be more interested in the Sharks than in the Jets. Maria is more down-to-earth, worried and lovely, just as loving as Tony but not as naïve. Natalie Wood has received a lot of criticism for her performance but to me, she is just outstanding. I can’t judge her accent since I don’t know how people from Puerto Rico are supposed to sound like, but her acting is surely first-rate. She wonderfully displays all of Maria’s feelings and her face is so angel-like that she lights up the screen whenever she appears. Her whole character is supposed to be a ray of light in this movie – her white dress at the dance that makes her noticeable even in the largest crowds, her light nightgown that she wears while Anita confronts her about Tony which makes her shine so bright in the dark room or her red dress at the end which again shows the beaming of the character. All these exteriors fit wonderfully to Natalie Wood’s ability to brighten up the screen which brings some light into the almost constant darkness of West Side Story. And I have seen West Side Story on the stage three times but there has never been a Maria who so completely broke my heart in the final scenes.
But even though Natalie Wood shines in her part, it’s the supporting players that make West Side Story. Russ Temblyn is wonderful as Riff, portraying all the feelings of this young man – insecurity and fear, hidden by arrogance and brutality. George Chakiris surely shouldn’t have won an Oscar but there is no denying the elegance and subtle danger he brings to the part. But it’s not only the leaders of the gang, even all the supporting players are portrayed very memorable. But while the movie seems to prefer the principle characters of the Sharks, it gives more chances to shine to the supporting players from the Jets. The Sharks are allowed to complain a bit about how mistreated they feel in America but it’s the guys from the Jets who really can show their inner pains and frustration as they live in a world that doesn’t seem to want them.
But of course in the end, there is one person in West Side Story that justly dominates every discussion about it: Rita Moreno. I have seen Anitas who danced better, I have seen Anits who sang better but never have I seen an actress bring the same amount of energy and fire to the part and the movie as a whole. The role of Anita is supposed to be a scene-stealer and it would be hard to screw that part up but Rita Moreno does still so much more here. This is one of the few cases where a supporting performance both carries and supports the movie. She doesn’t just dance her part, she acts it. She doesn’t just act her part, she lives it! It’s impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she appears on the screen. There is already a lot of energy and movement in West Side Story, but Rita Moreno manages to even add to that. Of course, the part of Anita is not just dancing and singing, it’s also the best-written part of the whole story. Anita is the conscience of the tale, torn between her loyalty to the Sharks and her love to Maria, suffering from tragedy but still determined to do what’s right. It’s a real showcase for any actress but Rita Moreno forever left her mark on this role.
I’ve already mentioned Maria’s costumes which brings me to another big plus of this movie: the technical values. The costumes that so wonderfully separate the Jets from the Sharks, are just one of the many wonders in this film. Who can forget the amazing Art Direction that, unlike the script and the direction, so wonderfully combines the stage roots of the production with the possibilities of movies? It all seems so fake and real at the same time and every set has its own tone, it’s own mood. The Bridal shop with it’s warm colors, Maria’s little bedroom with the colorful doors that show so much diversity in a world that doesn’t want it, the almost claustrophobic atmosphere under the highway or Doc’s shop, a little island of security which cannot keeps its innocence in this war. And then there is the astonishing cinematography. It’s mostly this that keeps the movie from really becoming a taped stage production. The camera that is almost always moving and constantly finds new angles and perspectives gives the movie an unforgettable living feeling – the dances become even more agile, the lover’s faces shine even brighter.
It’s nor hard to see why West Side Story swept the Oscars. When one accepts the basis and tone of the story, then it’s almost flawless despite its flaws.
Did I forget something? Let’s see…I can’t think of anything…oh, yes, there is also music!
Seriously, West Side Story surely has one of the greatest scores ever (even people who never heard of West Side Story know songs like "America" or "Maria"). Of course it’s hard to credit the movie for it since the score already existed but it still deserves praise on its own. Marnie Nixon’s wonderful voice, forever captured on the screen, deserves special credit.
And it was a brilliant idea to switch the placing of the songs “Gee, Officer Kruppke” and “Cool” since it adds so much more to the tension of the story.
Or to make “America” a song between the boys and the girls from the Sharks instead of only the girls.
The new position of “I feel pretty” also works very well. In the stage version, the song comes behind the fight between Riff and Bernardo. While it works also very well there because it creates a stark contrast to the tragedy before, the new placing of the song is just as good and makes just as much sense.
And it was a good idea to cut the dream sequence from “Somewhere” – as good as the movie is to bring this story, which should only work on the stage, to the screen, this dream could never have worked on film.
But not only the dances, also the rest of the movie is so exquisitely well done. The story may be a little bit simplified and old-fashioned but it’s still incredibly touching and engaging. And West Side Story is also never afraid to shock its audience. Who can forget the amazingly choreographed fight scene between Bernardo and Riff?
West Side Story is a movie that achieves the impossible – to bring the aliveness and thrill and feelings of the stage production to the screen. Isn’t it thrilling to sit an audience and watch dancers do the dance at the gym right in front of your eyes, on a stage where you can see the brilliant movements so closely? Some of this brilliance is destined to be lost on the screen not because the quality of the dance decreases but because the feelings of ‘being there’, the thrill of the theatre is lost and can never be felt by a movie audience. But the movie version achieved the impossible and managed to bring almost the exact same thrill to the movie audience.
And even though the two main characters lack depth and fascination compared to the supporting players, their romance is done in such a simple and charming way that it’s impossible to not care about them. And the ending makes me cry every time...
Was this tragedy needed so that this silly war could end? Will it even change anything? Personally, I doubt it. But it's up for each viewer to decide for him-/herself.
So, I hope I could explain why the movie version of West Side Story is such a masterpiece and why it is one of the greatest movie musicals ever.
Posted by Fritz at 10:19 PM