Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘West Side Story’ (#3)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Whenever I speak to people who love West Side Story (1961) they are quick to acknowledge the film’s flaws. With a sigh, they complain about how bland Richard Beymer is, how dodgy the brown face is and how annoying it is that Natalie Wood’s singing had to be dubbed. Then they’ll tell you that the film makes up for all these flaws by featuring revolutionary choreography, catchy tunes, and a bravura performance from Rita Moreno. I have always responded to Moreno’s soulful, empathy-filled performance but there are flaws that I can’t bring myself to overlook. I was never fully under its spell and it was a problem that all of the seams were on display even though Robert Wise was aiming for an authentic look and feel. Before all of you musical fans crucify me, I would like you to know that I am a fan of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969).
Tony, Richard Beymer, falls in love with Maria, Natalie Wood, even though they are members of rival gangs. Their love affair is carried out in private but a misunderstanding involving Anita, Rita Moreno, leads them down a tragic path.
Tony and Maria are really the biggest problems with this film. The two of them are written as the dullest lovestruck teenagers of all time. There isn’t enough hysteria or madness behind the emotions that they claim to feel and the script has no interest in analyzing their motivations. One of the most compelling aspects of Romeo and Juliet is the fact that Romeo is presented as too impulsive. He is callow and often driven by the desire to be in love rather than experiencing the real feeling himself. West Side Story wants us to earnestly believe that these two have an entirely pure, uncomplicated love. They seem to entirely misunderstand the point of the original story and our hero is ‘too good for this world’ rather than being a foolish youth whose injudiciousness was only exacerbated by the environment that he grew up in.
It doesn’t help that Beymer and Wood are horribly miscast in their roles. She’s clearly not of Puerto Rican descent and the orange face paint is very distracting in every scene as well as being horribly offensive. I also don’t understand why she was cast when she is not a very good dancer or singer. Wood was in her element in sex comedies and films that allowed her to play off against her image as the girl next door but she doesn’t feel like a musical theatre star. Beymer was meant to be a major star but he never quite panned out. He looks like dozens of other leading men from this period and his face blends in with that of George Peppard and even Russ Tamblyn. Neither of them bring much conviction to their delivery of their lines and Moreno can effortlessly blow them off the screen with one flash of her hazel eyes. We never understand why we’re meant to care about Tony and Maria when Wood and Beymer turn them into dummies who are severely lacking in personality.
They aren’t helped by the fact that every line of dialogue is fairly painful to listen to. The speech is pedestrian and has none of the lyrical grandiosity of Shakespeare. I understand that they were aiming to ground this story in the tough streets of New York City but this is a movie and you show up to listen to people speaking more articulately than the average human being. Most of the people that I know are able to express themselves more eloquently than Tony and Maria and they also possess basic common sense. The screenwriters want us to feel some sympathy for these characters and the difficult situation that they are in but they also have such disgust for people who are members of gangs and can’t imagine anybody who isn’t a member of the Los Angeles intelligentsia being relatively smart. It reminds us of how inauthentic this depiction of gang life is and increases the degree to which all of the emotional beats fall flat.
They also try to take on race relations and they end up reducing an incredibly complex problem down to cheap platitudes. It is clear that they wanted to sell this to the widest audience possible so they did not do anything that would have been truly shocking to people in the audience. They cast white movie stars in the leading roles and are content with saying that racism is bad. They leave it at that and you roll your eyes at how simplistic and mild their version of racism is. Critics were willing to praise it as an important message movie at the time because it paid lip service to this issue. Mind you, these critics were people like Bosley Crowther, who was willing to praise the work of minstrel performers in his film reviews. This was not a progressive or shocking piece of work back in 1961 and you have to wonder how the Puerto Rican community reacted to this. The pretentious, safe comments that it makes on this ‘issue’ helped it to win Academy Awards and it reminds you that people within the film industry are less socially aware than they would like to believe.
I just don’t think that this story, in the manner, that it is told, warrants 152 minutes of your time. Like most musicals made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is stretched out to an unbelievable length and you wonder why the scenes in between the song and dance numbers have to last for so long. I suppose they were all aiming to be seen as epics with wider scopes than your bargain basement schlock but they seem bloated rather than giving you more bang for your buck. There are a few extended dance sequences that do make use of their length but you find yourself yawning during the “Tonight” performance. The editor would have done the audience a great service by cutting this down significantly.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time attacking West Side Story and I do think it’s pompous, distasteful musical that is not deserving of even a small fraction of the praise that it receives. I would write it off as worthless if it were not for Moreno’s vivacious, effervescent turn. She’s full of the energy and vitality that Wood sorely needs and whenever she arrives on screen you know that things are about to heat up. She has spoken about the fact that it was very difficult to dance in time with Leonard Bernstein’s compositions. She was used to working with different counts and the 5/4 time and 6/8 time that he employed was disorienting for her. Fortunately, she rose to the challenge and when she kicks out her legs or teeters on the edge of rooftops before effortlessly pirouetting back into the center of the congregation of women who are part of her gang. She does take your breath away when she pulls off dance moves that were clearly very difficult to perform. I didn’t believe for one second that she was a tough chick from a rough part of town and not a professional actress who had been groomed by 20th Century Fox. This ultimately didn’t matter because she handled all of this with such ease.
Sadly, the greatness of Moreno’s work is diluted by the poorly written conclusion which she is involved in. One of the most sacred elements of Romeo and Juliet is the tragic ending, which forces us to come to terms with a bleakness that we may not have been prepared for. West Side Story is afraid of alienating its audience with anything that could make them feel slightly uncomfortable. Tony dies but Maria gets to live and because we don’t care for the two of them, we’re almost glad to see them go. It feels like they lost their nerve and didn’t want to put all of their chips in when it came to turning it into a tragedy. I seriously question their thinking when they decided to adapt Romeo and Juliet while removing one of the most important aspects of the story. Through a silly plot contrivance, Anita ends up inadvertently causing Tony’s death and Ernest Lehman didn’t work hard enough to make any of this credible.
There is a general shoddiness at work here. You can tell that they invested a lot of money into this production but I can’t say that it was well spent. The Technicolor has the unfortunate effect of making every hue of orange, pink, and yellow blend together. This means that Wood’s face turns into melted block of processed cheese whenever she’s surrounded by blush colors and this happens quite often. It won an Academy Award for its cinematography and I seriously question this decision as this film frequently looks garish and tacky rather than appearing sumptuous and extravagant. If you compare this to something like Fanny (1961), which showcased the sights of Marseilles with great brio, you see where West Side Story falls short.
Despite my distaste for it, this was a huge hit at the time of its release and did receive exceedingly positive reviews. Its middlebrow appeal was reflected in the fact that it received ten Academy Awards and it feels like the sort of picture that the stuffy, behind-the-times Academy wanted to hold up as great art. It doesn’t have as much to say as musicals like Oliver! (1968) and even Fiddler on the Roof (1971). What seems to count is that it gestures at saying and doing the right things and it pats its audience on the back for being high minded enough to take something like this in.
This placed so highly on the list and it makes me extremely annoyed. Maybe they just love Moreno enough to overlook all of the glaring flaws that are present in this film. I can see ranking her performance highly but I don’t think that West Side Story itself is deserving of much recognition. I would be very happy if somebody locked this in a vault and protected future generations from being subjected to its wretchedness. They can sit down and listen to Peter O’Toole screeching about violets in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I know that I found that terribly charming when I was a twelve year old girl.
It is quite obvious that I would not have included this film on the list but I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the bizarre bias that AFI has towards musicals. In my estimation, it’s a genre with an iffy track record and when it was at its height in terms of popularity, it often produced very expensive pabulum. The bias towards them probably comes from actors. So many of them think of themselves as triple threats and they all harbor dreams of being professionals singers or dancers even if they become movie stars. Ostensibly, musicals give performers the chance to show off all three skills and they don’t have to rein themselves in, which is not something that they ever want to do. The love for them is also derived from a nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood. Musicals were the dominant genre during that period and people would flock out to see films like Mother Wore Tights (1947). That doesn’t happen nowadays and because the industry loves to pat itself on the back, they want to keep the legend of a dying genre alive. There are some fine musicals out there but AFI certainly overrepresented them, based on the average quality of films within the genre.