The Oscars Project: West Side Story (1961)

For 82 years the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year with the help of the fine folks at Casablanca Video and the Calgary Public Library I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

West Side Story (Best Picture and 9 others)

When people talk about “challenging” films they’re usually talking about slow-moving foreign dramas nigh-arbitrarily surreal art-house pictures and mumbly American indies — movies that aren’t designed for general consumption. They’re also not talking about the sort of movies that win Best Picture. As much as the Academy likes to say it’s rewarding artistic merit with its awards — and it is in a way — it tends to prefer the kind of art that resonates with as wide an audience as possible. The movie has to aspire to more than just Transformers 2-type mindless enjoyment but it doesn’t hurt to put on a friendly face either.

In its own way though West Side Story is a challenging film. Not because of its subject matter which is basically just Shakespeare Lite with a bit of racial tension and one-note sociology thrown into the mix. A member of Caucasian New York gang The Jets falls for a girl from Puerto Rican gang The Sharks with the star-crossed lovers following a path that generally echoes the Bard’s tale even if it doesn’t hit every beat. The challenge is to reconcile those aspects which are actually pretty typical Oscar-bait when you get down to it with the inherent ridiculousness of the movie’s choreography.

Take the snapping. It’s one of the most well-known and consistently parodied aspects of West Side Story and understandably so. Gangs of street toughs rhythmically snapping at each other before getting into balletic gang wars? That just sounds well dumb. It’s blatant artificiality in a movie that’s supposed to be insightful and tragic in addition to entertaining. If the worry in updating Shakespeare for a new audience is that the old English will be too foreign to modern viewers adding a thick layer of Broadway razzle-dazzle isn’t exactly an ideal solution either; it doesn’t exactly jibe with serious emotional intensity.

The eight-minute dance number that opens the film dares you to take the leap into its world introducing rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks with a maximum of action and a minimum of dialogue. Not action in the “blowing shit up” sense although there are some highly stylized fist fights but in the sense of establishing a physical language for the characters and for the movie:

One of my biggest problems with modern dance — and it is my problem not the genre’s — is that I simply don’t get it. I can tell that it’s trying to communicate something but as impressive as the physicality can be I’m entirely dumb to its meaning. West Side Story’s intro seems to me like an attempt to get past exactly that sort of communication barrier: Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins know that even in the more musical-friendly days of the ’60s the fusion of jazz and ballet that West Side Story uses could be potentially alienating or worse hilarious. The intro with all its finger-snapping and pirouetting is as much a Rosetta stone as an inciting incident. Before the admittedly poncy leaping about the snapping is actually kind of intimidating and it instantly ties the gang together as a unit. The rest of the movement can be a bit frilly but it’s clear enough that it plays the role of the strut or the gangsta swagger — the Jets (the main focus of the intro) don’t just walk down a street they own it. If you can’t buy that by the end of the sequence then West Side Story has no hope; the choreography will just seem hopelessly unrealistic in the face of the movie’s more serious storytelling. If it wins you over though the movie becomes a whole lot easier to take.

Thanks to that intro it’s easy to be taken in by all of West Side Story’s gang-related segments. They’re hypnotically vibrant bursting with kinetic energy and effortlessly expressive movement all bolstered by a Leonard Bernstein score that is catchy jazzy and melodically adventurous. Though rock ’n’ roll was already a burgeoning cultural force by the time West Side Story hit Broadway in 1957 the score is rooted in jazz and for good reason. Despite the threat to family values posed by the likes of Elvis (who was actually offered one of the lead roles in the West Side Story film) the real dangerous underground seemed to revolve more around the Beat writers and the free-spiritedness of be-bop and its offshoots. While Bernstein’s score never goes as far out as Miles or Diz say it isn’t afraid to incorporate atonal and arrhythmic segments as its language of youthful rebellion and in an odd way that makes it less dated than if they’d used the early spasms of rock ’n’ roll. The impressively physical choreography and the unpredictable soundtrack really give these scenes a sense of (family friendly) danger.

Which is good because the actual love story side of West Side Story is bland bland bland. The story is supposed to have Shakespearean weight but it’s lacking from the very beginning: co-director Robert Wise uses a Vaseline-smear effect to show that Tony a former Jet and Maria the sister of the Shark leader only have eyes for each other but the camera tricks are about as close as the movie gets to real chemistry. And when they sing to (and about) each other it isn’t with the complex rhythms and musical adventurousness of the Jets’s or Sharks’ songs it’s with milquetoast numbers like “Maria” which borrows the least appealing elements of operetta and Broadway schmaltz.

Just for comparison here’s “Maria”:

And here’s “Cool” which comes as the Jets are laying low after a “rumble” leads to murder:

Both numbers are cheesy but in such different ways. “Cool” is the kind of cheese that can at least be repurposed — its choreography was straight-up reused for a Gap commercial — and even at its worst it still crackles with the characters’ repressed hostility. It’s unique and immediate even violent. “Maria” sounds like something that a church choir would reject for being too banal. “Maria All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word Maria Maria Maria Maria…” And that’s not even touching on the excessively soft-filtered production. Bah.

Even in terms of acting the romantic portions of West Side Story pale next to the other bits. None of the toughs in the movie look particularly tough but Richard Beymer’s Tony is pure Matinee idol. Where the rest of the cast is working their asses off making fence-hopping look graceful he’s just mugging for the camera and flailing his arms a bit. Natalie Wood’s Maria is a bit more expressive selling over-the-top “I Feel Pretty” with her genuinely likeable presence but it’s no surprise that it’s the supporting cast who took home Oscars.

When you get down to it most of what works in West Side Story is probably the work of co-director Jerome Robbins who handled the dance sequences. He was famously kicked off the movie for spending too much time on those sequences obsessively re-writing the choreography and fixated on perfection but his choreography and filming are pretty much flawless. Robert Wise who handled the talky bits (and the dance sequences after Robbins left but using his co-director’s choreography) does have the better resume — he directed The Day the Earth Stood Still and cult classic The Curse of the Cat People along with editing Citizen Kane — and it’s not exactly like he drops the ball in his scenes but he doesn’t do much with it either. Much like the movie’s dialogue and moralizing the bits between songs are pretty utilitarian; they’re there because they have to be.

As for this project’s recurring question I’m not convinced West Side Story is a true best picture especially with The Hustler as a fellow nominee. When the cast is dancing Story is absolutely unstoppable and it’s not hard to see why the Academy voted for that movie. But that leaves out some fairly long stretches that either drag or just haven’t aged well. Despite attempts to add gravity with a sympathetic look at racial tensions and juvenile delinquency a good half of West Side Story is pure cheese-ball Broadwayism. Without the flash of Robbins’ half this Story would be pretty forgettable.

[Note: I unfortunately watched the pan-and-scan version which pretty obviously cuts out a good deal of the choreography. If you can avoid it don’t make the same mistake.]

Coming up:

1962: Lawrence of Arabia

1963: Tom Jones

1964: My Fair Lady