Tuesday, September 9

Good 60s Films: West Side Story

1961 Musical
From United Artists
Directed by Robert Wise
and Jerome Robbins

Natalie Wood
Richard Beymer
Russ Tamblyn
Rita Moreno
George Chakiris

I remember the first time I ever saw this film.  It was in a theater on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, not for the general public, unassuming on the outside but the auditorium was ultra chic and it was packed with industry types.  I recall that Glenn Ford sat directly in front of me and Loretta Young was in the row behind me.  Neither a favorite of mine, I felt a little rush of disappointment in my star-ogling.

It was the only disappointment I would have the entire evening... and I was certain that would be the case.  I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about West Side Story and had been looking forward to seeing it on its regular opening day with friends just five days later.  As it turned out, I still did that.  Before it would leave theaters after a long run, I probably saw it 10-12 times.

I had not yet bagged my first newspaper job but I was already buddy-buddy with the entertainment editor, Lowell Redelings, who gave me a solo ticket for the screening.  He had unexpectedly seen it the prior evening and didn't want to go again.  Lucky me.  I only had about a five-hour notice (I was likely not the first one offered the ticket but presume the first willing to go alone).  For those five hours I fantasized about sitting next to Natalie Wood.  Dream on.  I would have traded in about 12 of my movie star sightings for just a glimpse of Natalie Wood.

You'll recall the last movie I did under the Notable 60s Films banner was Splendor in the Grass.  It also happened to be the film Wood did right before West Side Story.  Where she had eagerly looked forward to working with director Elia Kazan in Splendor and was generally quite pleased with her performance in the film, little of that could be said for this film.  She always had reservations about doing the musical, that concern bordered on nervous tics while doing it and she was not wholly pleased after its release. 

Furthermore, she felt like an outcast among the cast, the least talented for a musical, her singing voice famously dubbed and not altogether welcomed.  On the other hand, she was the star of the film, the top-billed star of what many would claim is the finest musical there ever was.  Of course everyone won't agree with that but I think I do.  It is not my favorite musical nor is it on my list of 50 Favorite Films, but I think it may be the best-made musical ever.  When those closing credits were scrawled on walls (thank you, Saul Bass) and that astonishing score filled the auditorium, I was dealing with serious goosebumps.  I knew I had seen something wonderful.

There was always a strong gay-influence in West Side Story, as well, and let's face it, that'll get my attention... even back then.  Many of the dancers would set off my gaydar, at least one of the lead actors is gay, one of a pair of directors was gay, both the composer and lyricist were gay and the author was gay.  I suppose that some might say to see a gaggle of butch wannabees carousing down a NYC street and busting into singing and dancing might be a little gay.  I suppose.

We won't detail the plot because... why?  Don't you know it?  Let's start at the very beginning... a very good place to start.  (Hey, I like that.)  It was a Broadway smash... you hear me?  A smash!!!  It starred Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera.  Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics.  It was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. 

Some things changed for the film version.  There was never any doubt that Lawrence and Kert or Chita Rivera would not do the film... all considered a little long in the tooth to play teenagers.  Broadway may accept them but the movies with those intimate close-ups would not.  Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents stayed connected to the film in their same capacities.  Robbins, too, came along but only as the choreographer.  That job was so immense on this project that Robert Wise, the man hired to handle the dramatic sequences, asked that Robbins be given credit as co-director.   

In one of his autobiographies, writer Arthur Laurents acknowledged the filming was no easy task.  Robbins had never directed a film before and wouldn't afterwards and he was brutal.  To call him a taskmaster wouldn't quite describe it.  Wood buckled over the long days rehearsing and filming, being insecure, as noted, about her singing and dancing, but also in playing a Puerto Rican.  (This was also around the time her first marriage to Robert Wagner was unraveling.)  One day she begged to be fired and requested that co-star (and love interest, no less), Richard Beymer be fired, too.  As it turns out, of course, neither was fired and they did make up and got on with it.

You probably know that Marni Nixon dubbed Wood's singing voice, but what you may not know is that while she was filming, she was using her own voice and it was her understanding that it would be her voice audiences would hear in the film and on the cast album.  It wasn't until around the end of filming that she found out the truth.  She was heartbroken and likely felt even less of the film.

A number of the cast came from the Broadway show, which made them a tight group, feeling a little privileged and special.  They weren't ready for nor especially warm to Miss Hollywood who would be drawing the film's largest performing salary.  Wood appeared standoffish to them when, by and large, she was simply enormously insecure and nervous.  To quite a number of them, it never really did improve.

In my piece on Richard Beymer, Did He Quit Us?, I mentioned his strange history with West Side Story.  Many of the pretty boys of the day were considered for the film.  Beymer had only made a bit of a splash a couple of years earlier in The Diary of Anne Frank and he couldn't sing and yet he got the lead male role.  If it weren't for this film, Richard Beymer would be today virtually unknown to the general public.  And yet he seems to have always distanced himself from the experience... never speaking of his participation in it as far as I know... not taking part in the retrospectives.  I think his inexperience shows up here and there, frankly, and yet I am left with thinking he was a most appealing Tony.

Russ Tamblyn, as Griff, the leader of the Jets, was a dance man from his youthful days at MGM.  He could sing some, too, although his high notes in at least one song in this film were done by another.  It would be the most famous movie he would ever make, as it is for the four costars. 

I thought George Chakiris and Rita Moreno were casting perfection as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, and Anita, his fiery girlfriend.  And the members of the Academy must have agreed because each won a supporting Oscar for their work here.

That work came chiefly from America, the singing-dancing whirling dervish of a number that is about the best I have ever seen.  As choreographed by Robbins and words and music from Bernstein and Sondheim, this number simply dazzles the senses as the music blares, the spoken words amuse us and the dancing should have given Kelly and Astaire chicken skin.

It is not the only number worth mentioning... let's consider three other one-word titles, Maria, Tonight and Somewhere... all about as famous as movie songs have ever been and sung by most of the popular artists of the day.  Not only did Maria tenderly capture teen love and optimism, but it made all of us realize that it really was the most beautiful sound we've ever heard.  Another great love song came with Tonight and the singing of it on the fire escape with those glorious closeups of the film's two gorgeous stars was an incandescent moment for me.  The setting of this number was a tribute to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

Somewhere... oh dear, how I could go on about this one.  It was originally a ballet in the play but was given to Maria and Tony to sing here.  There's a place for us, somewhere a time and place for us.  When I first heard it, I was about to marry a woman.  When I really heard it, I was about to begin a long journey with a man.  Its message of hope has been borrowed by many people who want to be allowed to love whom they want without interference.

Take a note.  The only time we really hear Wood's own voice is when she briefly reprises Somewhere during the final scene when Tony dies. 

The truth is, I loved the entire score of West Side Story.  To this day I pop it in the player in the car.  When all is said and done, this film is chiefly remembered for two things... the singing and dancing and... and I hope she knew it... Natalie Wood's enchanting fawn-in-the-forest performance as the lovely and innocent Maria.

Te adoro, Anton

Back to that final scene for a moment... it really worked for me... Tony and Maria meeting briefly on the playground, shortly before Chino kills him.  A sad, sad scene.  Don't you touch him, she screams as others are about to lift his corpse, and tears fill my eyes to this day. There were lots of tears from the hard-core industry folks in that fancy theater, too, I can tell you.   

The most beautiful sound United Artists ever heard was the opening and closing of the cash register.  It was a hit the world over.  Nominated for 11 Academy Awards it would win an astonishing 10 of them, including, of course, best picture.  It is the most Oscar-winning musical in film history.

Here are a few reasons why I think that is:  we had never seen a musical story quite like West Side Story.  The very nature of watching tough guys perform balletic numbers was something new.  When there wasn't singing and dancing, there was drama, hard-core drama... racism, killings, the deaths of all three leading men.  It did not end well... most musicals do.  The writing of the book was beyond what most musicals aspire to.  The music, the songs, the dancing elevated this film to great heights... few musicals have had this many serious hits.  And lastly there is Natalie Wood... desirous of throwing off teenage roles and showing what she's made of as a grown woman and a wonderful actress.  I think she succeeded mightily.  West Side Story owes her as much as she owes it.

Take a look at my favorite scene:

The Directors

1 comment:

  1. I'm SURE I was not the only teen to get a crush on Nat. It lasted forever.