I wondered how I’d approach West Side Story as a review…from Rita Moreno who I loved in the role but was not as impressed as the masses were. George Chakiris who was unexceptional in his role? Russ Tamblyn who was sadly ignored as the modern day Mercutio? And the list could go on…but no. I decided to start my pitch with the leads. The picturesque couple Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. These two are at the heart of this film as far as I’m concerned. As the modern day Romeo and Juliet they are effectively dramatic. The most beautiful scene in this film is short 'One Hand, One Heart' scene where Tony and Maria get their wedding. I always wish that this song was longer. But it’s a beautiful moment and so much sadder when you realise that they don’t have much time left.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. West Side Story tells the story of two opposing gangs – the Hispanic Sharks and the Pollack Jets. Coming from different sides of the barriers Maria and Tony falls in love at a dance and enter into a fateful and short lived love affair. With a score by Bernstein and Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins [co-director] and directed by Robert Wise this film won ten Oscars – the most for any musical. As much as I love this film though I think that the praise often falls on the wrong persons.
George Chakiris. Although I can almost see what makes this a baity character I really cannot understand how he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He wasn’t even the best supporting Actor in the film. Chakiris’s big number – if you want to call it that – is the much lauded 'America' scene. And that belongs to Rita Moreno in more ways than one. His role is a parallel to Capulet in Shakespeare’s play. But I have absolutely no feeling for Bernardo. The only reason I get sad when he dies is because it’s Maria’s brother…and that’s essentially it. His relationship with Anita doesn’t seem exceptionally profound and his relationship with his sister doesn’t seem taxed with any intense filial love. Perhaps…perhaps I am being harsh. But that’s really how I feel about his performance. Russ Tamblyn as Riff and Tucker Smith as Ice give performances that impress me much more.
Russ Tamblyn is one of my favourite actors, but I think his hot-headed Riff is played wonderfully. Riff is a gang leader and he is a bit racist, but he’s also charming. It’s not hard to see why he’s the leader of the Jets or why’s he’s Tony’s good friend. 'Officer Krupke' exists as a number to showcase his comedic and acrobatic talents and it works. The number may not be as catchy as the rest of the score – but the social commentary and the pure hilarity in Tamblyn’s mannerisms is notable. I would have been more than happy to see his name in the list of nominees. Smith’s role of Ice is much smaller he does it well. He is Riff’s second in command and he plays it all very laid back, in the wings formidable but not hot antagonistic. And then Riff dies and there’s that number – 'Cool'. I say, now and always, this is the best number in the film. Not the prettiest to look at like 'One Hand One Heart'. But it’s well choreographed, well acted and the palpable tension is haunting. Up to this point I was leaning towards the Jets – but this was the number that sold me. It’s all done so impressively. I find this scene way more distressing than Riff’s actual death.
There’s much I could say about Rita Moreno’s Anita…but I won’t. Movie Mania gave his thoughts on her performance which are more or less mine. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rita and I like her Anita. But I don’t feel any empathy for this character. And I’m not sure if it’s her interpretation or if this is how she was directed to play. Yes, Anita is supposed to be mostly brash but there are some soft moments like when she finds Tony in the shop with Maria that seem so sincere. But she shifts back to the aggression that it all seems so ill played. But I don’t grudge her the Oscar.
Lastly, one thing I disliked about Romeo & Juliet and also disliked about this is the lack of femininity on the side of the Montagues [Jets]. In Shakespeare’s play there was just not any appeal of Lady Montague, but in West Side Story the two girls Graziella and Velma are underused. Of course there is no need for them, so I guess this is a testimony to the film’s strength that I even care about the little people.But that scene just before 'Officer Krupke' where Riff tells them to leaves always makes me oddly happy.
West Side Story is great film. The problems I have with it are more with the reception than with the film itself. It’s not perfect…and you’ll notice I didn’t really zero in on any perfections…but I don’t need to. No film is perfect…and West Side Story’s few missteps are thoroughly overshadowed by the wondrous rest. And I’ll end as I begun. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were phenomenal in this. Those last fifteen minutes culminating in that fateful shot from Chino are just gut wrenching. Tony’s death probably marks my favourite dying scene. With no words Beymer impresses and the closing speech my Maria is a classic. As is the entire film.