West Side Story: Best Picture, 1961

westsidestoryposter.jpgThe 34th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Bob Hope. West Side Story, with 11 nominations, faced off against an impressive slate of heavy hitters. These included fellow Best Picture nominees Judgment at Nuremburg (11 nominations), The Hustler (9 nominations), The Guns of Navarone (7 nominations) and Fanny (5 nominations), as well as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (5 nominations) and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (4 nominations, none of which was for the Best Foreign Film award won by Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly). The 11 nominations were for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Music, Best Sound, Best Costumes and Best Art Direction. It won every single award except Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to Judgment at Nuremburg. Judgment also took Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) who beat out Spencer Tracy’s performance from the same film.

West Side Story, based on a Broadway musical of the same name, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set amidst a turf war between two rival New York City street gangs: the Sharks and the Jets. The Sharks are a group of Puerto Ricans, led by Bernardo (Chakiris), struggling to earn a place in a society that favors white Americans. The Jets are an all-white band, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), who resent the outsiders’ encroachment on territory they feel entitled to. As animosity between the gangs increases steadily to dangerous levels, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s sister. Rita Moreno plays Bernardo’s volatile girlfriend, Anita, and Simon Oakland (the psychiatrist from Hitchcock’s Psycho) plays corrupt policeman Lieutenant Schrank.

Before we examine the movie any further, I have to say a few words about its most serious problem: the street gangs are not only not convincing in the least, they are largely hysterical. This is the sort of gang you might expect to run into in Mayberry, not New York City. Yes, it is a musical, so it follows that the hooligans will dance (although it seems to me that their movements needn’t have evoked ballet quite so much). This is merely a stylistic issue of the sort one would find in almost any musical. However, what self-respecting teenage tough would actually say, in a whiny voice bereft of sarcasm “Aw, gee whiz”? And, c’mon, Sharks and Jets? Those are the kinds of names I was coming up with for my stupid little clubs when I was in the third grade. Why would a gang of Puerto Ricans fresh off the island call themselves the Sharks anyway? Even “Los Tiburones” would have sounded more convincing (and sinister).

This element simply does not work, and it often fails so spectacularly as to evoke laughter at precisely the wrong moments. There is definitely a lot of potential buried just beneath the surface, and this is the sort of thing that is crying to be remade with a genuinely hard edge to the street gang element. This would escalate the tension in all the right ways and might have made for a genuinely excellent movie version of the stage hit. Oh, and maybe this time around, they could use real Puerto Ricans, or at least actual hispanics, for all of the relevant parts instead of just one. Funny thing: The only genuine Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno, is by far the best thing about this movie . . . hint hint. Chakiris was born in Ohio, the son of Greek immigrants, and Wood was a Californian of Russian descent.

And speaking of the fact that this is a movie version (while I’m complaining), someone should have tipped off the director to the beneficial freedom of cinema as an art form. Most of the movie looks like it is being filmed on a rather tackily-decorated stage when the camera should have been off the lot in real locations (or at least taken a running shot at coming up with a halfway-convincing set). West Side Story has some of its best moments when the film crew wakes up and makes use of some of the tricks available to filmmakers (as when Tony and Maria first meet), but most of the time the charisma of the actors alone must distract us from their shoddily-built surroundings. This from a film that won Oscars for cinematography and art direction? Fie.

If one can completely ignore all of these serious failings, the remainder is a whole lot of not-half-bad peppered with moments of riveting excellence. There are some absolutely fantastic songs (it is a Bernstein and Sondheim musical, after all). My favorites are “America” (a rapid, witty exchange about the differences between America and Puerto Rico) and “Gee, Officer Krupke” (a snide mockery of respectable society’s inability to explain or solve juvenile delinquency), but there are plenty of other good ones. There is a barely-contained, electric energy that runs unbroken through the entire movie, from that stupid snapping in the opening scene through the sweaty dance numbers and emotionally-charged finale. West Side Story is in many ways a very good movie, but not, overall, a great one. But, if nothing else, it probably deserves some credit for ushering in a decade of fantastic musical films that dominated at the box office and sailed off with boatloads of Oscars to boot.

Judgment at Nuremburg should have been the star of the night, no question. Two wins out of eleven nominations is an insult to the intelligence and taste of every voter involved. While some might squirm through 3+ hours of dialogue-heavy courtroom drama, I am riveted anew each time I watch it. So much so, in fact, that I kind of resent the Academy voters for sticking me with another sit-through of West Side Story for my Oscar project instead. And giving the directing award to West Side Story instead of Fellini? Come on. The man was nominated 12 times and never won. No, West Side Story probably deserved at most 4 of its 10 awards.

~ by Jared on December 20, 2007.

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