West SIde Story - 1961
Director(s): Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Writer(s): Ernest Lehman (screenplay) / Arthur Laurents (book) / Jerome Robbins (play)
Cinematography by: Daniel L. Fapp
Editor(s): Thomas Stanford
Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, Tucker Smith and Tony Mordente
Last week I explored the role that won José Ferrer the Academy Award for best actor, 1950's Cyrano de Bergerac, and also earned him the title of first Puerto Rican to win an Oscar. Fifty years later Benicio del Toro became the second man to have the same honor. However, eleven years after Ferrer, Rita Moreno became the first Latina and Puerto Rican woman to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress), a feat not yet duplicated in the fifty-eight years that have passed. So, it is only fair that I also explore the movie that won her this honor, West Side Story.
Fair warning before we jump in - this film requires a lot from your suspension of disbelief. Like all musicals, it asks you to overlook the dancing and singing when a serious matter is being discussed. It asks you to ignore the fact that these groups of gangs that are willing to fight to the death, will not say a single bad word. But, above all it asks you to overlook the brown-face for all the white actors playing "Puerto Ricans" and in the case of Moreno, the brown-face of the light skin latina playing a dark skin Puerto Rican. The social commentary of the film and how it portrays the struggles of people in the streets, helped my suspension of disbelief greatly, especially when it came to the portrayal of my race. With that out of the way, let's talk about it.
The story is a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It takes place in 1957's West Side's Lincoln Square - a neighborhood in Manhattan. Two rival gangs, the Jets (whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican), are fighting over the territory daily. Prompting the leader of the Jets, Riff (Tamblyn), to suggest a final all-out brawl for permanent dominance, something the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (Chakiris), agrees too. Things get complicated when a former member of the Jets, Tony (Beymer), falls in love with the sister of Bernardo, Maria (Wood), creating a ripple effect that costs the lives of gang members and the happiness of everyone involved.
This film's script is unapologetically a Broadway musical put on screen, and for the most part, I was entirely on board for it. Sure it takes a second to get used to the dialogue and their cadence, but once you get used to it the film's rhythm is as sticky as glue, and it doesn't let go till the very end. Where this film shines is with the musical numbers, as they range from romantic, to comedic and to my favorite, the social commentary. The song "America" sang by the Sharks and Moreno, and how everything is America comes as a double edge sword for non-whites sadly is very relevant still to this day, and the laughter it produces feels a bit bittersweet. Another that has the same satirical bite is "Gee Officer Krupke!", sang by the Jets. This song shines a light in how the justice system looks for excuses to push the "problem" down to the next office, bouncing the Jets from courtrooms, to social workers, to a psychiatrist, and to jail, all sitting vague reasoning for their behavior without every trying to help solve the problem.
Quick note: this film is so embedded in the zeitgeist that I knew the lyrics to many of the songs (I Feel Pretty and Maria), despite this being my first viewing.
This film also won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Film Editing, and you can plainly see why. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise use of camera movement to capture the beautiful choreography was incredible. Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp's use of color is fantastic, as they gave the film a specific color palate, along with providing the gangs their signature colors. There are multiple sequences where the editing and transitions implemented by Thomas Stanford took me off-guard as I was expecting a straight forward musical - for some reason - with the first encounter of Maria and Tony being my favorite. Time slows down, and the background blurs away, and all there is and all that matter is Maria and Tony.
West Side Story manages to be dated and relevant at the same time, telling a timeless tale of love against the world and the eternal struggle of the underdog from the streets no matter the race. The songs are smartly written, the choreography is thrilling, and the film on a technical level is as close to perfection as one can get. The performance from everyone involved, especially Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn are lovely, as both are incredibly talented triple threats. I came in to see the lone Oscar performance for a Latina, and I walked away amazed at how much I loved this film despite its glaring racial flaws. It is currently on Netflix, go watch it.
West Side Story is Why I Love Movies.
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