Nearly two weeks ago, I started on something that I call Embracing the Melodrama, Part II. For the next month or so, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 126 examples of cinematic melodrama. I started things off by reviewing the 1927 classic Sunrise and now, 24 reviews later, we’re ready to start in on one of my favorite decades, the 1960s!
And what better way to start the 60s than be taking a look at the 1961 best picture winner, West Side Story?
Being a lifelong dancer, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen West Side Story. If you love to dance, this is one of those films that you simply have to see. Of the various musicals that have won best picture, West Side Story is arguably the best. Based on a hit Broadway show (which was itself rather famously based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), West Side Story was co-directed by the great choreographer Jerome Robbins and it features some of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed. If you don’t get excited while watching the Sharks and the Shark Girls arguing about America, then there’s really no hope for you. Tonight Quintet, Somewhere, A Boy Like That, Maria … even Gee, Officer Krupke, has there ever been another musical score that just leaves you wanting to sing as much as West Side Story does?
(I mean, I’ll be the first admit that I absolutely love the theme song from Santa Claus Conquers The Martians but it can’t even compare to West Side Story!)
What’s funny is that, in between viewings of the film, I always seem to forget just how good West Side Story actually is. (Fortunately, this also means that I’m pleasantly surprised every time I watch the movie.) In theory, this is an easy film to joke about. It tells the story of street gangs who are apparently just as good at dancing as they are at fighting. The all-white Jets snap their fingers and tell us that when you’re a jet, you’re the best. The Puerto Rican Sharks are moving in on the Jets’s territory. The two leaders of the gangs — Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris) — want to settle thing with a “rumble.” And it’s easy for contemporary audiences to laugh because “rumble” is such an old-fashioned way of saying things that it’s now one of those terms that’s only used when one is trying to be ironic or snarky.
(For instance, I was with some friends at the movies and the people sitting behind us kept talking. One of my friends told them to shut up. One of the loud people replied that we were the ones who need to shut up. As the insults escalated, I finally said, “Y’all — do we really have to have a rumble right now?” Unfortunately, everyone was too busy arguing to appreciate my pitch perfect delivery.)
Riff’s best friend is Tony (Richard Beymer). Tony was a co-founder of the Jets but now, he wants to move on from the gang. He meets a girl named Maria (Natalie Wood) and the two of them fall in love. However, Maria is Bernardo’s younger sister. Her best friend, Anita (Rita Moreno), is Bernardo’s girlfriend. Loving Tony, in other words, is prohibido.
And, since West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, you can probably guess to what type of tragedy all of this leads.
Now, before I heap too much praise of West Side Story, I do need to admit that, in the role of Tony, Richard Beymer does not exactly radiate charisma. He’s handsome enough but you never quite buy that he was former member of the Jets. Since Tony’s singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant, you do believe everything that he sings. But otherwise, Richard Beymer comes across as being stiff and rather awkward.
And it doesn’t help, of course, that he’s acting opposite Russ Tamblyn who, in the role of Riff, is a whirlwind of unstoppable energy. Tamblyn is the one who you remember at the end of the film, followed by George Chakiris. Compared to those two, Richard Beymer’s performance is just dull.
Fortunately, there’s Maria (played by Natalie Wood with Marni Nixon doing the singing). Natalie Wood is one of my favorite of the classic Hollywood actresses. She’s certainly one of the actresses with whom I most idenitfy. With Richard Beymer sleepwalking through the role of Tony, it falls on Natalie to provide some true emotion to the film’s love story and that’s exactly what she does. Every time I see West Side Story, I want to be Natalie Wood and I want to have a best friend like Rita Moreno and I want to meet someone like Riff…
West Side Story is one of the best musicals ever made. If you’re not dancing and then crying and then dancing while crying as you watch West Side Story, then you’re doing it wrong.