West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)

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The Oscars Project prompted me to watch West Side Story for the second time in my life, and as far as I can remember, I have never had such a dramatic and rapid turnaround on a movie — on first seeing it five years ago, my hatred of it was all-consuming. I saw its story as threadbare, its song and dance as merely window dressing for a thin Romeo and Juliet revision with no depth or sophistication. Diagnosing myself now, it’s fair to say I simply didn’t understand musicals, or rather didn’t understand this kind of musical. Because while the film isn’t perfect, and while, yes, its book by Arthur Laurents and Ernest Lehman’s script are short on idiosyncrasy or the human presence that might show rather than tell us that this is a Real Love Story, this is an impressive and monumentally huge film that seems just as felt about the spirit if not the letter of youthful love as it is about its thinly veiled social commentary. Don’t look for Shakespeare here; look for audacity, for cinema.

The Academy had an unfortunate tendency, when it acknowledged the existence of Hollywood musicals, to annually reward those that exemplified the worst, the laziest of the genre; An American in Paris was among the lesser offenders, but My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Oliver! all belong in the bottom tier of major American (and/or British) studio productions — so it’s a relief that a film as intelligent and emotionally immediate as West Side Story would take the Oscar in 1961. There’s a certain purity to the film, helped along by the wide-eyed central performances of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, who are both luminous in their naivete, and whose determination to be together indeed, simple as it is, captures something integral about being, in Dion’s phrase, a “teenager in love.” West Side Story belongs in a loose grouping with Rebel Without a Cause and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as the Phil Spector records that were about to burst into the marketplace, as models of adult compassion toward the human whims of young people. Think of what great art we could make if we took adolescent emotions seriously more often rather than mocking them.

All that said, the best reason to see this film is admittedly a bit superficial, though only if you consider visual art itself necessarily superficial — though handled by the generally innocuous Robert Wise, the movie’s a feast to look at, a worthy expansion of its gorgeous Saul Bass-designed poster, and even more gorgeous Saul Bass-designed end credits sequence, one of the best in film history. The camera whips and charges frantically around the city, the sets endlessly evocative, the alleyways a perfect fusion of naturalism and artifice, and all of it creates a vivid world of platforms and dead ends and mazelike wire fences in which to leap and play, to dance and fight. All of West Side Story is meant to be a spectacle, to take the breath away, but because its spectacle is based primarily on physicality and aesthetics rather than sheer size, its formal audacity — down to its surreal visual evocations of first kiss and first touch, of love at first sight even — translates beautifully to smaller screen, which leads me to believe it’s more substantitive as a film than something like Lawrence of Arabia, the bravura intensity of which is tied inexorably to the inherent hugeness of a 70mm print.

It also isn’t a period piece, which enhances both its detail and its grandiosity; though occurring in a heightened reality, it feels like it’s happening in our backyard, now as in 1961. I don’t know how much of it (probably a lot) is translated from the stage musical, though I have trouble imagining that its three dimensions could come so screamingly to life theatrically, but that heightened reality is what I find so fascinating here, and what I found so repugnant back in 2006. The fact is that this story doesn’t need to be rife with cutting dialogue and impactful character intricacy, because this is ballet; this is opera, even. Not that those forms cannot contain full-on multilayered characterization or carry far more weighty storylines than this, but the musical form in use here liberates this simple tale, renders it an impressionistic fable — and therein lies its power. At first I was uncomfortable with the way that even the attack of Anita (Rita Moreno, giving the film’s best performance) is enacted and emphashized through dance, as though assault or rape are something with such levity; the same goes for fight scenes, scenes of murder and death and other things close in varying degrees, but that places West Side Story in a firm tradition of dance as narrative, not just as a celebratory force but as an evocation and flight of liberating expression of bleak and terrible realities.

This, then, would be the place to state that Jerome Robbins’ choreography, particularly of the male gangs throughout the picture, is consistently stunning, witty, and frighteningly suggestive. He handles these groups of people so beautifully you feel you could believe anything he tried to tell you with these young bodies as his force, his communication. Not even the music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim respectively, which are certainly fine, even great in the case of something like “I Feel Pretty” or “Maria,” can stand up to the beauty of Robbins’ accomplishments here… or at least, that’s true to a point. Somewhere in the middle of the film is the “America” number, a seven-minute masterpiece of everything, one of the most triumphant moments in cinema. The song and words are abrasive, insistent, powerful, brilliant; the dancing, the movement, the singing are magnificent, enthused, full of anger and joy and seemingly every extreme of human emotion and experience. It’s almost as if everything else in the film exists to provide a place for “America” to happen. It’d be worth it even if the rest of the film weren’t a fine experience, which it is.

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