West Side Story (1961): Best Picture Oscar–Highlight of Hollywood Musicals

“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 younger viewers and Jerome Robbins’ exciting choreography.

 

The exquisite score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has become an acknowledged classic, a 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 space in the mid-1960s..

 

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. Tony (Richard Beymer), a member of the Jets who’s Riff’s best friend but doesn’t believe in gang violence, gets caught in the midst of the conflict after meeting her at a dance. Despite the animosity between their friends and relatives, Tony and Maria fall in love, but the romance is doomed, destined to end tragically.

Jerome 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  production.

Nonetheless, 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

 

If 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.

Made on a budget of $10 million, West Side Story proved to be a bonanza at the box-office, grossing over $40 million.

Structure of the Musical and Order of Songs

n the Lincoln Square area, there is tension between a white gang, the Jets, led by Riff, and a Puerto Rican gang of immigrants, the Sharks, led by Bernardo. After a brawl (Song: “Prologue”), Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke break the fight up. The Jets decide to challenge the Sharks to a rumble at an upcoming dance.

Riff hopes that his best friend Tony, the co-founder of the Jets who left the gang, should fight (“Jet Song”). Riff invites Tony to the dance, but Tony is uninterested. He senses that something important will happen to him (“Something’s Coming”).

Bernardo’s younger sister Maria tells her best friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita she is excited about the dance. At the dance, the gang member and their girls refuse to intermingle (“Dance at the Gym”).  Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight, but Bernardo demands that Tony stays away from her.  Anita argues that Bernardo is overprotective of Maria, and they compare the advantages of Puerto Rico versus the U.S. (“America”).

Tony visits Maria on her fire escape, where they reaffirm their love (“Tonight”). Krupke suspects that the Jets are planning something and he warn them not to cause trouble. After Krupke leaves, the Jets make fun of him (“Gee, Officer Krupke”). When the Sharks arrive, both groups agree to a showdown under the highway with a one-on-one fight.

The next day at the bridal shop, Anita tells Maria about the rumble. Tony arrives to see Maria, which shocks Anita. They profess their love and Anita warns them about the consequences if Bernardo finds out about their bond. Maria asks Tony to prevent the rumble, and the two fantasize about their wedding (“One Hand, One Heart”).

The Jets and Sharks approach the area under the highway (“Quintet”). Tony arrives to stop the fight, but Bernardo antagonizes him. Unwilling to watch Tony be humiliated, Riff initiates a knife fight. Tony tries to intervene, which leads to Bernardo killing Riff, and Tony killing Bernardo with Riff’s knife. When the police arrives, everyone flees.

Maria waits for Tony on the rooftop, as Chino tells her of the events. Tony asks for her forgiveness before turning himself in to the police, but Maria confirms her love and asks him to stay (“Somewhere”).

The Jets reassemble with their new leader Ice, and decide on a new strategy toward the police (“Cool”). Anybodys warns that Chino is now after Tony, and Ice sends the Jets to warn Tony.

Anita enters the apartment while Tony and Maria are in bed. Tony and Maria arrange to meet at Doc’s to get money and elope. Anita, spotting Tony leaving, chides Maria (“A Boy Like That”), but Maria convinces her to help them elope (“I Have a Love”).

Maria asks Anita to tell Tony that she is detained from meeting him. When Anita reaches Doc’s, the Jets harass and humiliate her.  Angry Anita then lies that Chino had killed Maria. Doc delivers Tony his getaway money and Anita’s message. Tony runs into the streets, asking for Chino to kill him as well.

Tony spots Maria and they run toward each other, but Chino shoots Tony. The Jets and Sharks arrive as Maria is holding the dying Tony (“Somewhere”). Maria takes the gun from Chino and blames their hate for the deaths.

Schrank, Krupke, and Doc arrive and the gangs and Maria form a funeral procession before the police arrest Chino (“Finale”).

Oscar Alert

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

Awards: 10

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.