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Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #34: West Side Story (1961)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris

West Side Story is a deeply flawed film, but that doesn’t preclude it from being a great one as well. A musical tragedy that takes an old story (Romeo & Juliet) and gives it a modern twist (race relations in America), this is the rare musical where the message is more important than the music itself. From a technical standpoint, it’s an amazing achievement (director/choreographer Jerome Robbins put his dancers through the wringer here) and despite flaws that it shouldn’t be able to overcome (the weakness of its two protagonists, for example), it manages to rise above its problems to create something extraordinary.

Standing in for Romeo and Juliet are Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), separated by race – he’s Polish, she’s Puerto Rican – as well as the fact that her brother, Bernardo (George Chakiris), is the leader of the Sharks, the rival gang to Tony’s Jets. Of course, they fall in love anyway and the result, as anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s story knows, is tragedy. First Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is killed, and then Bernardo by Tony and then, as Tony and Maria are about to flee, Tony is killed by a member of the Sharks. In the moments following Tony’s death, Maria speaks aloud the message of the film, that hate only engenders more hate, that violence is cyclical and solves nothing. “How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you, and you? All of you. You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns – with hate. Well, I can kill too because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many and still have one bullet left for me?” The war between the gangs has yielded nothing and in these final moments, the realization that their war is pointless weighs heavily on the gang members, who are shamed and united by Maria’s impassioned pleas.

The film is at its best when it is dealing directly with the issue of race. The strongest of the film’s songs is “America,” sung by the Sharks and their girlfriends, lamenting the disillusionment with the American dream that can come when you’re an immigrant, especially a non-white immigrant: “Life is all right in America/If you are white in America… Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes.” The song functions not only to highlight the difficulties they face as Puerto Ricans, but also to show the cultural clash between America and Puerto Rico, figured here as a battle of the sexes. While the women sing about the opportunities they see for themselves in America (“Lots of new housing with more space”), the men see the dark side to everything (“Lots of doors slamming in our face”). The men are coming from a place where they were once valued by society simply by virtue of being male, and are now treated like nothing by virtue of the fact that they aren’t white, which makes their disillusionment only natural. The women, on the other hand, are coming from a place where their value is derived not from themselves, but from the men in their lives (fathers, husbands, sons, etc.) and while that doesn’t wholly change with their arrival in America, there’s greater opportunity for them to break free of those ties and make their own way. Bernardo’s assertion to Anita (Rita Moreno) that “back home, women know their place,” cuts to the heart of the matter. “Back home,” she would naturally have conceded to him, but now she’s an American girl and gets to have her say.

Later, the issue will be broached in the form of song again, after Anita finds out that Maria is hiding Tony even though she knows he killed Bernardo. “A boy like that who’d kill your brother/Forget that boy and find another/One of your own kind, stick to your own kind,” Anita cautions, but Maria won’t be swayed and through her own song convinces Anita to help her and Tony run away. However, when Anita goes to deliver a message to Tony, she’s brutally confronted with the reality that Tony and Maria’s love is not enough in this harsh, color-conscious world. This scene, where Anita is confronted by the Jets, is easily the most difficult scene in the entire film to watch, as they taunt her with insults both racist and misogynistic, and simulate raping her before the scene is interrupted by Doc (Ned Glass), who puts an end to the grotesque show. But the damage is done, and Anita’s response – telling the Jets to tell Tony that Maria is dead – seals the fate of the lovers.

The directness with which the film deals with the issue of race, in addition to the spectacular nature of the musical numbers (the choreography is never anything short of impressive) makes this both compelling and watchable, but not to the extent that its weaknesses aren’t obvious. As the young lovers, Beymer and Wood are a little wooden, especially in comparison to their spirited co-stars like Chakiris, Tamblyn, and the engaging and forceful Moreno. The only time Maria really seems to come alive is in the moments following Tony’s death, which makes it a little difficult to believe in them as a couple. The story’s message of tolerance is also undercut somewhat by the fact of casting Wood as a Puerto Rican. That being said, however, the film’s strengths far, far outnumber its weaknesses, and there’s so much going on here that it’s easy to overlook the listlessness of the central love story and focus simply on the music and the message, both of which are engrossing.

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