The Best Picture Winners: West Side Story (1961)

| November 14, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Hey!  Let’s deal with racial inequality . . . through DANCE!!

* sigh *

Whenever Hollywood tries to be progressive the results can sometimes be – in a word – cute.  That’s especially true as time goes on and the issues raised become relics of the adamant of time.  The Civil Rights Movement was the prevailing domestic social event of the 1960s (and, in truth, of the latter half of the 20th century), but Hollywood was shy about dealing with it.  There was a nasty habit on the part of Hollywood executives to wrap the issue up in genre pictures as if the public couldn’t swallow the subject without serving it up as a familiar piece of entertainment.

Youth in revolt was profitable in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s especially with the burgeoning counter-culture which would give birth to The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, but also a vast wasteland of biker pictures wrought by American International.  In the midst of this came West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957 and became ridiculously popular.  Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins reworked Romeo and Juliet to focus on a society struggling to understand itself through a new racial identity brought on by The Civil Rights Movement.  The result, for many, was a tremendous experience and subsequent generations have found it hard to disagree.

Certainly the Academy voters agreed.  They seemed ready to tackle issues like racial equality but not in films bold enough to serve the issue head-on.  Twice, in the 1960s, The Academy rewarded films that tackled racial inequality that were never-the-less burdened with the weight of a genre, first with West Side Story and later with In the Heat of the Night.  Neither  really shed much light on the subject but one has to admire the effort.  Both are exceedingly entertaining but as a measure of dealing with the civil rights in any real way, both seem to tread very safe waters.

Perhaps it is by design.  Message films are almost inevitably preaching to the choir and West Side Story is no exception.  Was this movie meant to convert the unconverted?  The buried message is that the unions of people from warring families (or races) are nothing new, hence the fact that West Side Story is a reworking of Shakespeare’s 367 year old “Romeo and Juliet.”   Yet, it sands off the edges of The Bard’s work most notably in the final act wherein the Puerto Rican girl Maria (Natalie Wood, who was of Russian heritage) survives while her lover Tommy (Richard Breymer) dies.  That undercuts the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in that both families are made to suffer for their violent feud.  I’m also dismayed by the dialogue which is standard and very flat.  A work based on Shakespeare should sing with beautiful and colorful dialogue.

One of my biggest problems here is that the lovers never really seem to be in love by order of nature, but by order of the screenplay.  Natalie Wood and Richard Breymer are good actors but their characters are as stiff as their dialogue.  Interestingly enough, the supporting characters are much better drawn.  Rita Moreno and George Chickiris both won Oscars for their performances and they earned it, their characters seem to transcend the staccato dialogue.

The musical numbers here are flawless, beautiful and highly energetic, each playing to the purpose of the scene and never just to have a musical number.  Perhaps that should have been the through-line of the picture.  Maybe if the entire film were singing without spoken dialogue it might have worked out better.  I’d love to see that version.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.