Saturday, May 7, 2011

West Side Story

Year: 1961
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 51
Writer: Ernest Lehman (adaptation), Jerome Robbins & Arthur Laurents (source material)
Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Star: Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris

“West Side Story” is a movie I love, but it is a movie I love with reservations. It is certainly one of the greatest film musicals and features moments of tremendous power and emotion, and yet it falls short of transcendence. It ones of those movies where you walk out of the theater on a high and tell your friends “Oh, it was amazing! If only…” The major flaw I find with the film is entirely different than the ones my friends and colleagues often cite, and I can understand their complaints as well. That doesn’t make this a bad movie—there are too many perfect moments for that—but it does make the movie very, very interesting to critique.

Everyone knows that the film is a modernized, musicalized (I’m pretty sure I invented a word there) version of “Romeo of Juliet,” with star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) caught in the midst of a New York gang war between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and Jets (Whites). Tony was once the head of the Jets, but has lately been searching for something more to his life, leaving the gang in the hands of Riff. The Sharks are led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Chakiris), and also in the mix is Bernardo’s girlfriend/Maria’s best friend Anita (Rita Moreno). If you have even a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, you know where this is going, though the film deviates from its source material by allowing Maria to survive the finale.

The major, almost unforgivable flaw comes in the film’s second half, after a bloody street fight leaves Bernardo dead at the hands of Tony. Tony crawls into Maria’s window and tells her what happens, and then Maria forgives him. Immediately. Not only that, but they then sleep together. Apologies for my vulgarity, but Maria might as well say the following dialogue: “You killed my brother? That’s okay, just fuck me!” How the heck did this make it into the movie? Screenwriter Ernest Lehman made one of the most convoluted plots of all time, “North by Northwest,” seem completely effortless, and had great success adapting such musicals as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I” for the screen…so what happened here? Not only does it completely undercut the power of the death of a person we really like, but it is so heinous that it utterly destroys Maria as a character. Up until that point, you identify with her because she is a strong girl with her own opinions and ideas, but in that moment she becomes an unfeeling wretch. The saddest part is that the answer was in the source material! In the Shakespeare original, the Bernardo character was a cousin who didn’t have a deep connection with the Maria character, so his death was inconsequential to the love story but hugely important as the spark of the tragedy. Here, it’s just…icky.

Every time I watch the movie, I wonder whether that single move makes the last third of the film irreparable. And, to be honest, sometimes it does.

But if you can look past that, and I understand if you can’t, there’s just so much to love here. Consider the sequence that opens the film, where the gangs snap at one another and ultimately get into scuffles while performing some fantastic dancing. Jerome Robbins’ choreography still has the power to take your breath away in many of the sequences, not just because you just don’t see dancing like that anymore, but because it’s just so poetic and lovely. The dancing goes hand in hand with, for my money, the best score and songs of any musical. Ever. Sorry, “My Fair Lady.” There isn’t a clunker in the bunch. “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria”…the list goes on. My favorite is the quintet version of “Tonight,” which every smart composer and lyricist has ripped off at some point in his or her career.

The music leads to moments so perfect they stay with you, fresh as the first time you saw them, years after the end credits roll. Take the dance at the gym, where Maria and Tony first see one another and the manic mambo dancing fades away into a simple, intimate melody of newfound love between the twosome. Or when the men and women bicker with one another about the pros (washing machines) and cons (organized crime) of living in America via witty barbs and dance. At this point I’m just listing, so I’ll stop, even though there are many more.

Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins try a lot of interesting things with the visuals, like when Tony walks in a daze from the school dance singing “Maria” and the backgrounds keep fading into others. Or, during the dance, when the dancers literally blur when Tony and Maria catch sight of one another. These kind of tricks could conceivably date the film, but they still surprisingly stand up because of the underlying romantic subtexts involved.

Then there’s the acting. Wood’s performance is often stomped upon by my friends, but all I see is a young woman with high spirits and a lot of chemistry with the rest of the cast. She is so…well…pretty and charming and gay in “I Feel Pretty” that I wonder if they are watching the same film as I. Perhaps it is because of the character assassination moment I wrote of earlier that leaves a bitter taste in viewer’s mouths. Beymer is unfortunately quite wooden when left alone, and does not convince any viewer that he once led a street gang, but his scenes with Wood have an innocent, sweet charm that I wasn’t expecting.

Moreno and Chakiris are both standouts, with charisma to spare and a great repoire with one another. I can’t be the only one who secretly wishes that there was another film tracking their love story to compliment this film, can I? Tamblyn is also very good as Riff, with his great early “Jet Song” wonderfully interpreted and danced.

The highest compliment I can give the film is that, after it ends, I still wonder what happened to the characters as they continue their lives. What did Maria do with her newfound strength? Did she ever reconcile with Anita, and how will Anita’s near-rape at the hands of the Jets strain the uneasy peace between the gangs?

With a movie that reaches such powerful heights, it’s easy to get carried away with it. To overlook those obvious flaws. Rewatching the film on the big screen reminded me what a “big” movie it is, both in terms of scope and emotion, and what an achievement it is that it works as beautifully as does. It’s definitely one of the greats. And yet…

My Score (out of 5): ****

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