1961 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor / Best Supporting Actress

Film #223: West Side Story (1961)

Four years before they struck gold with The Sound of Music, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman had already scooped one Best Picture prize. West Side Story saw Wise co-directing with Jerome Robbins who had worked on the successful Broadway production.

Just like the stage version, Robbins and Wise’s film features two all-signing and all-dancing gangs who go to war over the course of the movie. This modern day version of Romeo and Juliet saw the Montagues and the Capulets become Polish immigrant-heavy Jets and the Latino-only Sharks. The Romeo character of the piece is Tony, the lieutenant of Jet leader Riff who is all but out of the gang life after deciding to work in a local drugstore. This is where he meets Maria; the film’s approximation of Juliet, who is the sister of Shark leader Bernardo. Just like in Shakespeare’s play, gang warfare gets in the way of the two lovers getting together with Tony reuniting with the Jets halfway through the film. The body count starts to rise after every musical number with both Biff and Bernardo biting the dust before the final scene. However, in a change from Romeo and Juliet, only Tony ends up dying whilst Maria survives and attempts to get to get the gangs to get along before there’s any more bloodshed.
The opening sequence of West Side Story is absolutely stunning and does a great job at building up the rest of the film. Lehman has brilliantly adapted Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim’s musical to the screen with almost every number fitting onto the big screen. One problem I did have was that I didn’t really find either gang particularly threatening primarily due to the fact that they could all sing and dance in time. In terms of the performances I found Richard Beymer to be a little flat as Tony and didn’t think he commanded the screen as much as he possibly could have done. Interestingly Natalie Wood wasn’t even auditioning for the role of Maria but had instead turned up with then lover Warren Beatty. But when Wood read for the part, Wise thought she was perfect and I can see why as she adds elements of both innocence and experience to the role. Whilst Oscar didn’t honour the leads, West Side Story did triumph in both of the supporting categories. For playing the threatening Bernado, George Chakiris won the Supporting Actor award. Elsewhere Rita Moreno dazzled in an Oscar-winning turn as Maria’s confidante Anita. Moreno is particularly strong during one of the final scenes in which The Jets circle around follow Bernado’s death. It’s hard to pick one favourite song but some of them standouts are America, Maria and Someday. The film is capped off brilliantly by Saul Bass’ fantastic closing sequence and is the end to what is still Oscar’s most honoured musical film. Though I’ve stated in a number of past posts that some musicals don’t make the best Best Picture winners, the outstandingly styled and fantastically compelling West Side Story is the exception the rule.


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