MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #51. West Side Story (1961)

The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Even a greaseball’s got feelin’s.”

Watching old movies can be great for getting an idea of how the world looked or thought or behaved at a certain point in time.  Sometimes it’s literally there on the screen and in the stories being told.  Sometimes it’s more about the behind the camera attitude of the film makers and writers who are inadvertently giving us a look at that time through their subconscious story telling.

But sometimes, I’m just perplexed by why a movie looks the way it looks, or depicts people and society the way it does.  Sometimes, I really wish I could go back and watch a movie with the same eyes as people did back when it was new.  Because I have no idea how people saw West Side Story in 1961, but with my 2015 eyes, it is impossible to fathom.

The Jets, a gang of white, teenaged delinquents stalk their New York neighbourhood, looking for trouble.  They find it in the form of the Sharks, a gang of immigrant Porto Rican teenaged delinquents.  The Porto Rican population has exploded and the whities decide it’s time to take their neighbourhood back.  They propose a rumble, one fight to end it all.

Deciding they need more man power, the Jets recruit ex member, Tony (Richard Beymer).  He’s on the straight and narrow now, but he can’t deny his brothers.  When the Sharks and Jets both attend a local dance, the tension is ratcheted up a few more notches.  Things only get worse when Tony falls for Maria (Natalie Wood), sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.  And because West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliette, there’s no way that this love can lead to happy ending.

When the word your gang of street toughs brings to mind is “scallywags” you might want to rethink just how tough your depiction of these dudes is.  I get that the beauty and grace of choreographed dance can be effective to show violence and brutality in an interesting way.  The only problem with West Side Story is, the first time we’re introduced to the Jets, they’re clicking and mincing their way through life in a way that immediately sets them up as goofily camp.  Or even, campily goofy.  It’s a precedent set so well and so early, that when the violence does appear, it’s too late.  I can’t take any of these dudes or their peril seriously.

Here’s where my need to see this movie through 1961 eyes comes in.  When they were making it, did the film makers know they were making something so camp and goofy?  Were they just aiming to make a colourful, great looking movie filled with awesome songs and impressive dance numbers?  If so, mission accomplished.  But if they were trying to make something that in any way depicted the real world versions of these people, it’s a massive swing and a miss.  And what did audiences make of it at the time?  Goofy, camp fun, or did they actually believe it was something dark and true to life?

I know musicals have tackled serious issues before, but I haven’t seen one that does it well.  There’s something about serious drama that I just don’t think works well with flashy song and dance numbers.  No matter how dark the subject matter, or how seriously the performers take it, there’s always going to be a certain level of camp goofinesss once they have to start with the hoofing.  So while there’s a lot to be said by West Side Story about racial and social prejudice, it’s under so many layers of camp goofiness, that it’s impossible to ever take it seriously.

West Side Story
Directed By – Jerome RobbinsRobert Wise
Written By – Ernest Lehman

Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Screenplay (nominated, lost to William Inge for Splendor in the Grass)
Best Supporting Actor – George Chakiris
Best Supporting Actress – Rita Moreno
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound

2 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #51. West Side Story (1961)

  1. There was the Saving Private Ryan dance number at the Oscars recently that leads us to believe Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much since 1961.

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