Film Review: West Side Story
In 1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins released West Side Story, an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, John Astin, and Penny Santon, the film grossed $43.7 million at the box office. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won the awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound, making it the musical film with the most Academy wins. Robbins also won an award for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film.
Two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are fighting over territory on Manhattan’s West Side. However, on the night the gangs decide to have their final battle, Jets member Tony falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo.
West Side Story is one of those film that made a near perfect transition from stage to screen, continuing to make it so that neither gang is in the right, interestingly making it so that neither side is sympathetic at all. This can really be seen when they are in their War Council negotiating terms of the rumble and neither side wanting the last say, continue to up the stakes when it comes to the weapons that are allowed. It’s interesting to think about how far they would have gone if Tony hadn’t intervened. The Jets also show their ugliness in how they treat Anita when she comes in to give them Maria’s message. They nearly rape her and would have succeeded had Doc not shown up. But the Sharks aren’t blameless either as they just want to get revenge for all the wrongs done to them. In fact, the whole of “Tonight” and its reprise show that the hatred put forward by each gang is identical and the only thing that makes them different is where they come from. It really shows how hate begets hate.
And alongside the gangs are the adults, who are just completely useless, or just as hateful. For one there’s Glad Hand, who’s not in the film for very long. However, at the dance, he’s idealistic that both sides can put away their differences and get along. But no one listens. Then there’s Schrank, who’s a blatant racist towards both sides, cant stand any of the kids and antagonizes them just to get a rise out of them. What's more is that he really only wants them to stop fighting so he doesn't get demoted and the only thing he’s really good for is temporarily bringing some agreement between the groups because they both hate him, which is another example of hate begetting hate. His right hand man Officer Krupke seems to be a useless lump only good for being a bit of muscle as well. But the most useless is Doc, who just wants the kids to stop fighting, but doesn’t know how to do it other than talking to them. He also seems to be the wisest character in the story, trying to dissuade Tony from his affection for Maria and trying to broker peace between the gangs. But the reason he’s useless isn’t his own fault; it’s because both sides are so blinded by their hate for the other that they won’t listen to anyone.
To complement the story are some very well done technical aspects, such as this being the film that popularized using the dancing to further the story. This can be seen in many of the musical numbers, when they’re all dancing to their destination rather than in one spot and then leaving after. And its win for Best Cinematography was well deserved, from the introduction to the Jets leaning on that fence to the road that Tony walks down while he sings “Maria” and everything in between.
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