Turner Movie Classics recently aired some classic examples of excellent movie-making. One of these Oscar-winning films was West Side Story, which I DVR-ed and watched yesterday.
It was maybe the 10th time since I first saw it one fine Saturday afternoon at the Palace Theater in Hilo, Hawaii, during my senior year in high school.
Okay. The movie. Take the time-honored story of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and transplant it to New York City of the early '60s. Rename the main characters and set them in rival gang brotherhoods.
Then, turn them into pop singers and masculine ballet dancers (it's a lot better than it sounds) performing the music of the revered Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). The dancing and choreography are exemplary, by the way.
Adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical, West Side Story is full of racial tension and stereotypes of the era. On the one side are the Jets—white Americans, led by Riff (veteran actor Russ Tamblyn). On the other side are the Sharks—Puerto-Rican immigrants led by Bernardo (newcomer George Chakiris).
Some pseudo-expletives slip into the lyrics and passed the censors, e.g., "fuggin'" and "krupp you!" The gang members make references to their rivals' ethnicity, leading me to wonder whether today's over-sensitive audiences would accept and sing the songs like my generation did. I can just see walkouts disputing the play and theater revivals of the film.
West Side Story swept through the Academy Awards that year, nominated for 11 Oscars, winning 10: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Moreno), Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Director (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise), Best Music Score, and five technical category Oscars.
It was nominated for seven Golden Globes, winning three: Best Picture-Musical, Best Supporting Actress (Moreno), and Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris).
West Side Story's soundtrack held the #1 position on the Billboard album charts for a record 54 weeks. "Maria," "America" and "Tonight" are particular favorites of mine.
The leads—Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer—were largely ignored by the Academy, likely because Beymer's songs were dubbed by Jim Bryant, and Wood's by Marni Nixon.
Among those who tested for roles were Suzanne Plechette, Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Elizabeth Ashley, Anthony Perkins, Warrant Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reyholds, Richard Chamberlain, Troy Donahue and Gary Lockwod. And, guess who director Robert Wise wanted to play Beymer's role ... Elvis Presley.
West Side Story held all the film musical records until Grease showed up and relegated it to second place..
Released Oct. 18, 1961 • Length: 152 minutes • Budget: $6 million • Gross: $43.65 million.