Thursday, September 24, 2015

Audient Auscars: West Side Story

This is the ninth in my 2015 series in which I try to catch up with the remaining best picture winners I haven't seen, one per month.

Of the two musicals I've seen so far in this series -- I don't count The Broadway Melody as a musical, though I guess it probably is -- West Side Story was the one with which I already had some familiarity.

The first one, Gigi, was new to me. The songs were one of the only things I appreciated about that movie, and I didn't appreciate them all that much. West Side Story, on the other hand, I've "known" for ages, in the sense that I saw it performed at the high school in my town when I was still in junior high. I was so enthralled by that production, by the melodrama of those songs and the earnestness of their performance, that I think watching West Side Story at the age of 12 or 13 was a big contributing factor in my decision to participate in musicals once I got to high school. An important show in my maturation, to be sure -- especially if you extrapolate from that a love for musicals as a movie genre, which causes me to seek out most new musicals even if I'm not completely versed in the classics.

Classics like West Side Story. It seems logical that I should have picked up the 1961 best picture winner somewhere along the way, but I never did. If either of my parents had been into musicals, they might have exposed me to it, but neither of my parents exposed me to much of anything cinematically, even though they would both probably describe themselves as movie fans. (My mom much more so than my dad.)

Anyway, fast forward to September of 2015 and I am only just now seeing it. But because of my history with the show, it's easily the previously neglected best picture winner I've been looking forward to the most.

And it didn't disappoint. I don't know that I consider West Side Story a masterpiece, but it's almost definitely the best movie I've watched so far in this series ... even if it has not aged particularly well. However, in considering the issue of how it has aged, one has to be mindful of the fact that this was never considered a "realistic" depiction of gang behavior on the upper west side of Manhattan. It was always highly stylized, even at the time it was created -- which may be a rather obvious comment to make about a movie where people "dance fight." It seems worth stating, though, because it would be easy to imagine someone raised on either modern gang movies or modern musicals just to laugh this one off from the start.

If you did that, you'd be missing some really enthusiastic performances of some truly terrific songs. West Side Story is one of those musicals with so many hit songs, each one you hear you say, "Wait, I didn't realize that was from West Side Story." In fact, the only song I retained from my early teen viewing was "Maria," which stuck in my brain because of the impassioned performance of the high school actor who sung it. If pressed, I might have also told you that "America" was from the show. But would I have ever provided "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," "One Hand, One Heart" or "Somewhere"? Definitely not. I probably would have told you that "I Feel Pretty" was from My Fair Lady (which I'll be watching in November) and that the others were from ... I don't know, other shows I guess. It would have seemed unlikely that a single show could be so overloaded with memorable songs, but West Side Story is that show. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents were just that talented. In fact, so good are the hits in this show that it tends to draw extra attention to the weaknesses of the "filler" songs. "Cool" struck me as particularly lame, a way to beef up the second half running time.

The stylized dancing and choreography put me a bit in mind of my favorite musical, both in its cinematic form and otherwise, which is Jesus Christ Superstar. Although that movie winks very openly at its audience, this movie kind of does that too, more covertly. In both movies there is the specific notion that we are taking a big, dense text (the Bible and Romeo & Juliet) and treating it in a way that is knowingly modernized, in the hopes of better communicating its core themes to today's audiences. That certainly explains the more stagy aspects of West Side Story, like the fact that few of the extras that would typically clog the New York City streets appear here. Some of the sets are starker and more basic than they would otherwise be, as this is not one of those shows that seeks to paint on a much larger canvas just because it's going up on the big screen. The fire escape set represented so minimally in the poster above is indeed just about that minimal here, which seems to further underscore the epic, timeless love story that is being explored. That it should bear such a resemblance to the stage version is probably no surprise, given that the main visionary behind the stage show (Jerome Robbins) is credited as co-director here -- even though he feuded extensively with fellow co-director Robert Wise, and was actually kicked off the set near the start of filming.

Some of the ways it hasn't aged particularly well, though, are worth commenting on. One of those is that whitebread Natalie Wood was cast as the film's Puerto Rican female lead, Maria. Even though she gives a very committed performance and is as darling as ever (I unashamedly crush on Wood), the mere fact of her playing a role outside her race leaves a person a tad uncomfortable, and makes her reasonably attempted Puerto Rican accent seem racially insensitive. That would not have been how the audience at the time perceived it, but I can't help perceive it that way. Of course, merely the idea of having gangs of two different races fighting it out would make West Side Story a political correctness hot potato if anyone were considering a remake today. Which may be one of the reasons nobody is. (Actually, IMDB does have a West Side Story entry that's listed as "in development," but as it has not a single creative person attached to it, we should be pretty skeptical of its status as anything more than an idea at this point.)

Of the many Oscars that this movie won, a whopping ten, one of the second-tier ones that seems most deserving is Thomas Stanford's win for editing. I don't always notice editing in movies -- in fact, it's usually better if you don't -- but here I specifically noted how tight the transitions were, how expertly the dance scenes were cut together. I was a bit more surprised by the supporting acting wins for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, both of whom seemed fine but unremarkable.

I'll get a one-month break from musicals next month when I watch Tom Jones, the 1963 winner, thanks to the efforts of my Flickcharter friend Jandy, who has sourced this difficult-to-find movie and is sharing it with me. Then back to musicals with My Fair Lady in November, before finishing off the series in December with -- well, I'll keep that as a surprise for now.

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