The following review, while appearing on The Film Experience blog, is decidedly not the opinion of Nathaniel Rogers or The Film Experience blog, but belongs solely to his crusty guest contributor, JA of My New Plaid Pants. Its appearance here does not indicate any approval, agreement, vetting, endorsement, or anything of the sort, or really probably even coming close, by Mr. Rogers and his fine establishment.
With that firm caveat outta the way, let's get down to it. Y'all voted to make me watch a musical. And I did.
West Side Story... 1961, directed by Robert Wise, who directed my much beloved The Haunting only two years later (and my much-fallen-asleep-during The Sound of Music two years after that). Music by Bernstein, lyrics by Sondheim. Screenplay by the great Ernest Lehman from the play by Arthur Laurents with an uncredited assist by ol' Bill Shakespeare. Titles and "visual effects" by maestro Saul Bass (recently showered with affection by my co-guest-blogger Thombeau here)... I think by "visual effects" they mean that moment when I became convinced I was having an acid-flashback and Natalie Wood morphed into a pirouetting kaleidoscope, right?
Anyway, that's a massive assemblage of talent right there. And it certainly shows - this beast of four-hundred backs managed through sheer force of talent and will (and a good dollop of cheeseball charm, something I'm never too immune to, try as I may) to beat my initial doubts and fears - which were many - mostly into submission.
I do believe the correct terminology is "Stockholm Syndrome."
As is fairly typical in these sorts of hostage situations, things didn't start out too pretty. The film begins with one of those "Let's set the tone with ten minutes of a blank screen and the score's many moods blaring" openings (sidenote: there's got to be a more efficient name for these things, right? Help?) that inevitably force my finger to the remote control (if Lawrence of Arabia gets the fast-forward here, then so does West Side Story). And then... comes the dancing. The... fight dancing. Sigh. To be honest - and that's what I'm doing here; turn away, dance fans! - this was rough. West Side Story and I did not get off on the right foot. Or the right left foot. Or the right tippy toe spin into a finger-snap of silly menace, for that matter.
Still, to skip ahead a bit, the film has its charms - yes, Rita Moreno is tops amongst these - and by the end I found myself fighting off a hint of tear. So what did it? What swallowed my soul and made me give in, at least a little? Here's my highlights.
Rita Moreno - To call her a firecracker would be keeping approximately within the realm of racial sensitivity the film adheres to, so I shall - what a firecracker!
It was during the "America" number that I first found myself first smiling, and she appears through the film often enough, and with enough constant moxie, if you will, to keep that goodwill freely flowing. Indeed, whenever she was onscreen - and, forgive me Nathaniel, especially when she was onscreen opposite Natalie Wood - she was all I saw, and I loved her for it. I mean, what else can you look at in this moment:
I think even the cinematographer had a Moreno bias. She's all I be lookin' at.
The costumes - Blame (or thank) this influence on my boyfriend - these are the sorts of things I never noticed before him - but a good chunk of what kept my eyes fixed to the screen was the beautiful shirts and ties and suits worn by this supposed bunch of ruffians.
Such fine tailoring for hoodlums!
The music - This is where I'm most grateful to y'all for finally making me plunk down to watch this one - I was familiar with the majority of the songs from this film, but before watching it I couldn't have told you what they were from. "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty"... sure, I'd heard them before, but when they actually came falling out of character's mouths I had one of them lightbulb moments, and now I can claim knowledge I didn't have before. So thanks for that!
The "One Hand, One Heart" number - This is the song that was sung during Tony and Maria's fake-wedding, right? I include this as a highlight because I was a bit exhausted by this time in the movie, and it gave me a good ten minutes of sleep.
Thanks, boring song!
(Oh, snark. You couldn't stay away too long, could you?)
The final half-an-hour or so of Nathalie Wood's performance - Around the time that Maria stood waiting on a rooftop for Tony to come to her after stopping the rumble - a feat he failed so spectacularly at, of course - and Wood does her little "I am such a happy girl in love!" dance whilst waiting, well right around then I found all the dislike I was having for Wood in the film up to this point start to slip away.
I was told by my boyfriend that I could get away with calling Wood "mis-cast" and not get hate-mail sent to me, but after this point in the film I really did find myself starting to like what she was doing. In all honesty, I found the Tony/Maria scenes to be cripplingly boring, and I never warmed to Richard Beymer as Tony. But Wood sold me on the last arc of their doomed love story much better than I anticipated, and even though the finale was positively drowning in cheese, I was still somewhat moved by her performance.
The darkness - Ah darkness, my sweet friend. Thankfully, to even out some of the more saccharine flavor of the film, West Side Story did have a few unexpected detours into darksville that obliged from me some respect. Mostly I speak of the attempted rape of Anita by the Jets, which was not somewhere I thought the film was going to go, and felt truer than most everything that'd come before. It might have been the excessive goodwill Moreno's performance had built up in me, but this was the sort of actual, harsh reality these kids lived within that I felt the film could've used more of. One of my main issues with the dance-fighting sequences was the over-stylization stole any actual fear of what was happening from my understanding of the moment. Instead of finding the battle to the death between Riff, Bernardo and Tony frightening, the choreography and exaggerated facial tics of the actors -
- kept me at a distance. But the attempted rape on Anita felt much harsher. It might've been the enclosed space which kept the camera somewhat tighter to the horrible action, or like I said it might've been how much I was digging Moreno, but this scene balanced out a lot of my distaste for the the arch superficiality of the story. Specifically this bit of unexpected choreography within the scene -
- hit me in the gut, and up until this point I didn't think the film would go somewhere quite this dark. These are the supposed "good guys" about to gang-rape the girl whose boyfriend one of them just murdered! And the film goes there; it doesn't just hint at what they might do.
Really, right after the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, the film stepped up a lot in this respect and went several places I didn't think it had the, ahem, cajones for. Like here:
Okay, so I think I hit enough of what I didn't like about the film there within discussing what I did like to leave it be, and not end this review on a downbeat list of negatives. Nobody wants that! There was much to admire. I'm glad I saw it, and thanks be to all of y'all who voted to force my hand on this one; I really might never have done it without you. Next up on Tuesday will be my review for Singin' In The Rain (which, if you'll allow me a moment of self-crucifixion over, Netflix did screw me over with and I actually went out and bought a copy of it so I could see and review it before Nathaniel returns from afar... not that I'm saying nothing here, but there is a PayPal link on my blog if anyone maybe wants to donate five cents here or there towards the "JA buying musicals, of all JA-forsaken things" Fund...).
And tell me in the comments what you love most about West Side Story. Am I nuts for thinking Tony was a snooze-fest? For ever finding anything redeeming within Natalie Wood's performance, or for not finding enough? Is Rita Moreno really universally adored by everyone on Earth? And were A-rab and Baby John supposed to be boyfriends or what?