Oscar: Best Picture–West Side Story (1961)

west_side_story_poster“West Side Story,” the screen version of the hit Broadway musical inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” is one of the most popular movie musicals of all time, largely due to its appeal among youth and Jerome Robbins’ exciting choreography. The exquisite score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has become an acknowledged classic and much beloved sing-along in film festivals across the world.

Staying faithful to Arthur Laurents’s original stage text, the film follows the escalating tensions between rival gangs: the Jets (Caucasians) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) as they battle for turf in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  The movie was shot around the Lincoln Center area before it became a performance area.


The sharks are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), the boyfriend of the tempestuous Anita (Rita Moreno), and the Jets are headed by Riff (Russ Tamblyn). Bernardo’s younger and naive sister Maria (Natalie Wood), who has just arrived form Puerto Rico, and Tony (Richard Beymer), a member of the Jets who’s Riff’s best friend but doesn’t believe in gang violence, get caught in the midst of the conflict, after meeting at a dance. Despite the animosity and hatred between their friends and relatives, Tony and Maria fall in love, but the romance is doomed, destined to end tragically.

west_side_story_7Jerome Robbins, who conceived the stage version, gets credit as co-director. Robbins was originally slated to direct the entire movie, but his perfectionism slowed down the production and escalated the budget to twice its original cost. As a result, United Artists brought Robert Wise after one month of rehearsals, assigning him to direction of the non-musical sequences (the weakest elements in the film). Before long, Robbins was removed altogether from the movie

west_side_story_6Nonetheless, the musical-dance numbers remain the most inventive, energetic sequences in the film, due to Robbins’s inventive choreography, a spectacular combination of ballet, acrobatics, jazz, all excitingly adapted to and recorded by the mobile camera. Just note the thrilling opening (including “the Jet Song”), and then the execution of “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and particularly “Cool” (my favorite number in the picture).

If Robbins had directed the whole movie, it would have been a more dynamic and exciting. Problem is plot. Whenever “West Side Story” goes back to the central love story, the movie become schmaltzy, predictable, and too slow. I doubt if any director could have changed that, certainly not Robert Wise.

west_side_story_rita_moreno_5Unfortunately, Wise grants the dialogue sequences a conventional treatment, with soft-focus camera, shots of stars in the sky, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein ballet that arrests the flow of the musical.

Give credit to Natalie Wood and Richard Breymer, who struggle to make the awkward, borderline banal, dialogue more credible than it is. It doesn’t help that Wood’s and Breymer’s voices were dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jim Bryant, respectively; Nixon has the wrong voice for the part.

west_side_story_rita_moreno_4If the leads strain, the supporting cast is first-rate, with half a dozen great performances. Rita Moreno (also dubbed, by Betty Wand) acts with fire and shows that she can also dance. Chakiris is sexy and athletic (just watch how he moves), and Russ Tamblyn reveals unexpected charm after the awkward part he played in “Peyton Place,” as a virginal mama’s boy.

Also in the cast are Simon Okaland as Lt. Schrank; Bill Bramley as Officer Krupke; Tucker Smith as Ice; Eliot Feld as Baby John; and Tony Mordente as Action.

Detailed Plot and Order of Songs

west_side_story_rita_moreno_3The film opens with aerial views of Manhattan, beginning at the southern tip and moving north, descending to the West Side’s Lincoln Square area. It is summer 1957 and there is a mounting tension set to music (“Prologue”) between the white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff Lorton, and the rival gang of Puerto Ricans, the Sharks, led by Bernardo Nuñez.

The two gangs harass each other, competing for control over territory.  The Sharks catch the youngest member of the Jets, Baby John, on the playground.  The other gang members rush to the scene and a brawl begins. Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke break up the fight. Schrank says he will not tolerate any more fighting, ordering the Sharks off the playground and tells the Jets “to make nice with them Puerto Ricans.”

west_side_story_rita_moreno_2Once the policemen leave, the tomboy Anybodys, who had been in the fight, pleads with Riff to join the gang. The Jets discuss challenging the Sharks to a rumble, and they deliver the news on neutral territory at a dance later that night.

Riff asks his best friend, Tony Wyzek, a Jet who has left the gang to work at a candy store, to present the challenge to the Sharks (“Jet Song”). Riff asks Tony to come to the dance, but Tony tells Riff that he senses “something  important” will happen to him. Riff cajoles Tony into going to the dance where he might discover the important thing he feels coming (“Something’s Coming”).

Maria Nunez, Bernardo’s sheltered younger sister, in New York for only one month, tell best friend Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, how excited she is about the dance, but not about Chino, a Shark she is expected to marry.

west_side_story_rita_moreno_1At the dance, held at the school gym, the Jets, Sharks, and their girls dance (“Dance at the Gym”), but there is tension. The host of the dance, social worker Glad Hand, tries to ease the tension by getting the gangs to dance together. Tony arrives during a mambo, and he and Maria  become infatuated, after exchanging one long look.  In a trance-like state, they dance, oblivious to the rivalry between their groups. When they kiss, the overly protective Bernardo angrily interrupts them, telling Tony to stay away from his sister.  Riff proposes a “war council” with Bernardo, and they agree to meet at Doc’s drug store after the dance. Tony leaves in a daze, singing of his new love (“Maria”).

Anita argues with Bernardo about his attitude towards Maria, reminding him they are in America, not Puerto Rico. Anita claims that Maria can dance with whomever she pleases. They debate the comparative advantages of Puerto Rico and the U.S. The girls emphasize freedom and their dreams and the boys underscore prejudice and poverty. (“America”).  They disperse, and Bernardo and his gang go to the war council.

Tony visits Maria on the fire escape of her apartment. Maria is concerned because of their ethnic differences, but they affirm their love for each other. (“Tonight”), and arrange to meet the next day at the bridal shop where Maria works.

The Jets gather outside Doc’s store to wait for the Sharks. Officer Krupke, who suspects they are planning trouble, warns them not to cause trouble on his beat. After he leaves, they lampoon him and the whole notion of juvenile delinquency (“Gee, Officer Krupke!”). Doc is about to close the store, but the Jets ask him to stay open.

During the war council, Tony arrives and calls them all chickens for using weapons. He demands a fist fight instead of an all-out rumble. The gang leaders agree and choose Bernardo to represent the Sharks and Ice to represent the Jets. Bernardo is disappointed as he was hoping to face Tony.

When Lieutenant Schrank arrives, the gangs intermix, pretending to be friends.  Schrank orders the Puerto Ricans out and they exit whistling “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He promises to help the Sharks if they reveal the location of the rumble.  The Jets disperse and Schrank leaves Tony and Doc to clean up the store. Tony confesses his love for Maria to the fearful and distressed Doc.

At the bridal shop, Maria shares her excitement with her co-workers (“I Feel Pretty”). Anita accidentally tells Maria about the planned rumble, and Maria questions its purpose. Maria insists on closing the store, and Tony’s arrival shocks Anita. Tony tells Anita of their love, and Anita mocks Maria. Anita worries about the consequences if Bernardo learns of their love.  Maria pleads with Tony to prevent the rumble, even if it is only a fist fight. Tony and Maria, wearing clothes in the bridal shop, fantasize about their wedding (“One Hand, One Heart”).

A musical montage (“Quintet”) represents the characters as they await the events: the gangs anticipate the rumble, and the two couples, Tony and Maria, Anita and Bernardo, their planned rendezvous. The Jets and Sharks arrive for the rumble under the highway. As the fight between Bernardo and Ice begins, Tony tries to stop it. Bernardo and the Sharks mock him. Tony refuses to fight back, and Riff punches Bernardo (“The Rumble”). Bernardo and Riff each draw a knife and they fight. When Riff is about to stab Bernardo, Tony stops him. Riff breaks away and runs back into the fight where he is fatally stabbed by Bernardo. Riff collapses while handing the knife to Tony, who kills Bernardo with Riff’s knife.

The gang members flee, leaving behind the bodies of Riff and Bernardo. Tony gazes at Bernardo’s body, and bursts into tears. Anybodys snaps him back to reality and he dashes off, escaping the police.

Unaware, Maria waits for Tony on the roof of her building. Chino tells her that Tony killed her brother, but Maria refuses to believe. Horrified, she retreats to her room and prays. Tony explains what transpired and asks for her forgiveness before he turns himself in to the police. Maria confirms her love and asks Tony to stay with her forever (“Somewhere”).

The Jets have reassembled outside a garage, and Action demands revenge for Riff’s death. Tempers flare, but Ice tells them to forget revenge and focus on their action when the police arrive (“Cool”).

Anybodys, after infiltrating the Sharks’ turf, arrives and warns them that Chino is chading Tony with a gun. Ice asks Anybodys to join the search, finally treating her like a member of the gang.

Maria and Tony have just made love, when Anita arrives. Seeing Tony escape through the window, Anita chides Maria for the affair (“A Boy Like That”), but Maria’s response softens her. (“I Have a Love”). Despite grief over Bernardo’s death, Anita agrees to help Maria and Tony run away.

To deceive the police, Maria sends Anita to Doc’s drugstore to tell Tony Maria is detained from meeting him. When Anita reaches the drugstore, the Jets harass, and mock rape her until Doc intervenes. Infuriated, Anita gives the Jets a different message for Tony, that Maria is dead, shot by Chino.  Doc somberly delivers Anita’s message to him. In shock and despair, Tony runs from the drug store to find Chino, shouting “Come and get me, too!” not knowing that Chino is waiting for him.

In the playground, Tony spots Maria and they begin to run toward each other, when Chino shoots Tony. The Jets and the Sharks arrive on the scene, as Maria and the fatally wounded Tony reaffirm their love (“Somewhere”). Tony dies in her arms, as the two gangs prepare to fight again, but Maria stops them. She takes the gun from Chino and blames both gangs for the deaths of Tony, Bernardo, and Riff.  She then drops the gun and sinks sobbing.  Everyone now watches as Maria gives Tony a final kiss. Three of the Jets lift his body and two Sharks help them to help carry him off. Maria and several Jets and Sharks walk behind them in a funeral procession. Schrank, Krupke, Chino and Doc linger on for a while, before they arrest Chino.


Nominations: 11

Best Picture, produced by Robert Wise

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Screenplay (adapted): Ernest Lehman

Supporting Actor: George Chakiris

Supporting Actress: Rita Moreno

Cinematography (color): Daniel L. Fapp

Editing: Thomas Stanford

Score: Saul Chaplin

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Boris Leven, Victor a. Gangelin

Costume design (color): Irene Sharaff

Sound: Fred Hynes, Gordon E. Sawyer


The musical is also one of the few winners in the Academy’s history to receive awards in all (ten) but one of its nominations, writing: Ernest Lehman lost to Abby Mann for Stanley Kramer’s courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

In the Academy’s annals, “West Side Story” ranks, alongside “Ben-Hur,” “Titantic,” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” as one of the most Oscar-honored films.