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West Side Story (1961)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley
  • Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
  • Screenplay: Ernest Lehman (Play by Arthur Laurents)
  • Length: 152 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Approved

William Shakespeare crafted some of theaters most legendary works, plays that have been adapted into many forms both literal and abstract. “Romeo and Juliet” is one of his most popular for its frank discussion of the lengths two people will go to in the name of love. West Side Story is one more adaptation for the books but it takes the Bard’s noted work and turns it into a modern tale of rival gangs in New York City. It also happens to be a musical

The Sharks are in the middle of a turf war with the Jets. The Jets are your typical white street gang. Although their parents and grandparents were immigrants themselves, they oppose the Sharks largely because they are recent immigrants from Puerto Rico who have arrived in order to find work they feel should be theirs.

Tony (Richard Beymer) long ago gave up his life as a Jet to get a real job. Maria (Natalie Wood) is the recently-arrived sister of Jet Bernardo (George Chakiris). As is befitting a tale inspired by Shakespeare, they are star-crossed and become the catalyst for the first fatal gang fight in that neighborhood’s history.

Though they are the film’s leads, Beymer and Wood didn’t receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor or Best Actress. This has a lot to do with the fact that they don’t sing their own songs, something that most actors prefer in their award nominees. It becomes more obvious when the unexceptional Chakiris and the mesmerizing Rita Moreno, as Maria’s friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, both received nominations and Oscars for their roles.

The film also received a slew of other awards becoming one of history’s most recognized Best Picture winners. It isn’t the least bit surprising that the film won so many accolades. The film is fantastic to look at, beautiful to listen to and undeniably entertaining. Whereas Vincente Minnelli created expansive but limitedly rewarding musicals, director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins deliver an engaging pic that touches the deepest emotional core of the audience.

Moreno gives the only standout act in the picture and many of the other performances lack emotional resonance. Take for instance the ill-fated leads. Wood is beautiful but her doe-eyed optimism is greatly overplayed. Likewise, you almost believe that Beymer’s going to rocket into space in his unwarranted elation. However, despite their obvious flaws, the story and the music help bring the emotional weight of their tragic final encounter home. Any romantic will identify with the intentions if not the merit of the denouement.

What’s most remarkable about the film is that after 40 years, West Side Story still maintains its relevance on society. Violence has supplanted the fisticuffs these hoodlums typically employed, it still represents and parallel interpretation of modern problems. Cross-cultural relationship have become more accepted by when two families are locked in a bitter rivalry, even the most innocent and genuine of loves can spawn contempt and revulsion.

Even though its setting has virtually disappeared and its costumes have become little more than a “retro” trend, West Side Story will never dull in its impact on each generation that beholds its lyrical beauty.