West Side Story, 1961 – ★★★★★

UK viewers, this is on right now on My5. So if you haven’t seen it, tune your television this minute!

Romeo and Juliet in New York. Natalie Wood wasn’t Puerto Rican, nor could she sing (she’s dubbed by Marni Nixon), but she’s, as her character Maria tells us ‘so pretty’, she falls in love so sweetly, and her last sentence is absolutely heartbreaking.

Richard Beymer couldn’t sing either (he was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) but his Tony is chiseled perfection, the gang member who would rather have a job, who grows up but still stands up for his best friend Riff (the Mercutio of this tale, played by ever-acrobatic Russ Tamblyn), and in doing so, pitches both sides into tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein provided the music, a fusion of Latino with street slang, and a young Stephen Sondheim started his lifelong flirtation with wordplay on the lyrics. Jerome Robbins did most of the choreography, and directed key pieces although Robert Wise gets the credit. Robbins did ‘The Jet Song’, ‘America’, ‘Cool’ …

Tucker Smith plays Ice, and he also sings for Riff in the opening number, and his flicked hair and pale blue eyes make you look out for him in scenes. Eliot Feld, a glorious dancer, is Baby John, and just watch him go in the ensemble numbers. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, real-life lovers in 1961, sizzle as Anita and Bernardo, both gaining Best Supporting wins at the Oscars for their trouble. Moreno is a sensation in the role most comparable to Juliet’s Nurse.

Then there’s the song ‘Maria’. Maria, Maria, Maria. The most beautiful song for the most beautiful girl sung by the most beautiful boy after their eyes have locked across a crowded dance floor and everyone else melts away to blurs. It’s a shout-out of love and joy and one of the greatest musical movie moments ever put on the screen.

Tony and Maria in the wedding scene, in the bridal shop, in the evening. Doc (Ned Glass) in the Friar’s role, letting the lovers meet even though he knows and understands the dangers. The tenements that gleam when they should be downtrodden. John Astin trying to keep order at the dance, while the boys and girls spit and hiss at each other, sometimes with hate, sometimes with lust.

Susan Oakes as Anybodys, who might just be the first musical depiction of a trans boy. Gina Trikonis as Riff’s girl, Tony Mordente as Action, David Winters as A-Rab. Maria wanting her neckline lowered just a little bit, just a little bit, as she is no longer wanting her dress for playing.

The perfection of ‘A Boy Like That/I Have a Love’, where Anita glimpses the rumpled bed and where Maria asserts her newly found knowing-ness. Love is love is love even after the unthinkable has happened, and Anita in her grief can help or hinder just anything.

Jose DaVega is Chino, and he’s a decent sort, but he will cause us to cry by the end, and even sarcastic Lieutenant Schrank to take a breath, just a little. That ending, the saddest of all endings, but a glimmer of hope, just maybe, before we switch to the graffiti inspired credits.

Did I mention how much I love this film?

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

One response to “West Side Story, 1961 – ★★★★★

  • Keith Mein

    Saw it again recently and was wowed all over again. Personally I think Moreno is the Star of the film with Natalie and George not that far behind. To see some weeks later Chakaris in 633 Squadron was very odd! WSS is a great film that will last and last alongside REAL classics. “America” is a great number both in music, choreography and social comment. EVERYONE watch it even if you have seen it before.

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