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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: West Side Story

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In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

If you have read entries in this series before you might notice that the top visual is a little different this time around. Obviously what you’re seeing is the addition of an Oscars statuette. A few things have intersected to motivate this specific post at this specific time. The first is that West Side Story was already the next movie up for a once-over in this series about the puzzle I’m re-building. With the Academy Awards coming up on the 26th this also seemed like an appropriate entry into my part of our coverage here because West Side Story was one of the biggest winners in Oscars history back in 1962 when it took home 10 awards. An additional element is that the agreed upon favorite to take home about that same number of Oscars this year is another movie musical, La La Land. So let’s take a look back at the big winner from fifty-five years ago!

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The 1957 stage production of West Side Story is widely considered to be a moment of change in the American stage musical. With the story inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and placed in a contemporary urban American setting and its very modern and experimental musical arrangements, it was something audiences had never seen before. Although it did bring home two Tony Awards the following year, it could be argued that its loss in the Best Musical category to the more traditional “Music Man” is only stronger evidence of its edgy genius status. As early as 1959 jazz musicians had begun recording their own versions of the songs written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It was only going to be so long before a film version was sure to go into production.

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Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein

From the project’s inception its producers insisted on casting only performers who they considered believable in the teenaged roles. What this turned out to mean for the most part is that they wouldn’t cast anyone older than twenty-nine (Rita Moreno’s age at the time the movie was released). They were less concerned with whether their leads could handle the singing. It’s no secret nowadays that Marni Nixon recorded Maria’s songs for star Natalie Wood, but a series of other stand-in voices were used for Richard Beymer, and for individual songs for both Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno (she did record her own vocals on her primary song, “America”). This didn’t mean they hadn’t pursued the most famous singer in the country at the time, though. Elvis Presley had actually been contacted about playing Tony, but Colonel Parker turned the part away, claiming Elvis should not be associated with the street violence present in the script. The eventual huge success of the film left Presley wishing he’d participated. It sure could have been an additional feather in his hat and might have changed his film career significantly, but I can’t help thinking that as great as Elvis was, West Side Story might not have been what it was with him in the cast.

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He sure couldn’t have made it a much bigger hit. With box office receipts reported at over $43 million it was one of the top earners of 1961. On top of its success with the public, the film was big with most critics too. Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times, writing the day after it opened called West Side Story “…nothing short of a cinema masterpiece” and Stanley Kauffmann said it was the best movie musical ever made. To this day it sports a 94% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

When it came time for Awards season, the Academy crowned the movie the king of its year, not just awarding it with Best Picture, but showering a total of ten statuettes on the film (still a record for a musical). And not for no good reason. Before production even began, the filmmakers were already blessed with an embarrassing riches of material from Bernstein and Sondheim. Several of the songs have become standards beyond the purview of the typical stage musical, recorded over and over by a variety of artists, most notably in jazz and pop vocal styles. The hopeful ballad “Somewhere” has been particularly popular, seeing many cover versions including those recorded by The Supremes, Barbra Streisand, Phil Collins, The Pet Shop Boys, and (my personal favorite) Tom Waits.

Director Robert Wise, who was brought on because of his sure hand with street level drama actively reached out to Jerome Robbins to help create the electric dance sequences that help to power the story and even demanded that Robbins receive a directing credit after the choreographer was fired when the production ran low on money. As a result both men’s names show up when you ask the question “who won the Oscar for Best Director in 1962?” Take a look at what was created for the tensely brilliant “Cool.”

Gee whiz I love that sequence. The ebb and flow of the dynamics are captured wonderfully by the variety of shots and moves, sometimes subtle and sometimes anything but. The bright crayon colors of the first half of the film are nowhere to be found here as the Jets’ new leader, “Ice” attempts to get them in the right frame of mind to deal with what’s coming next. The whole thing seethes and pops deliciously and you only get the tiniest indication of the amazing design and cinematography done from scene to scene.

Prior to a recent voting change in which Best Picture is decided using a “preferential ballot” with each voter ranking the nominated films first to last it was very traditional for the Best Picture winner to take home at least one acting prize. With very few exceptions, if your Best Picture nominee hadn’t seen an actor onstage clutching an Oscar, you sure weren’t going to send your producers up for the top award at the end of the night. This previous pattern was honored in 1962, with Rita Moreno and George Chakiris winning in the supporting categories.

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Based on the list of nominees in their categories, which include performances by luminaries such as George C. Scott, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Lotte Lenya, and Jackie Gleason I’m not entirely convinced that Moreno and Chakiris’ wins were not a matter of them being swept up in the overall enthusiasm for the film as a whole. On the other hand, it’s very possible to look at the color and design in that same photo of these actors and at the “Cool” sequence above with its remarkable choreography and camera work and identify that work as recognizably award worthy. None of this is intended to delegitimize their wins. I enjoyed both of them and I have no particular belief that any of the above listed performers should have won. What it does reflect is that my own reading of the film is that its strengths lie primarily in its source material and its visual execution. But sometimes that’s enough to make a truly great film, even if that same film has noticeable flaws.

…and that might just have some relevance to this particular Oscars season…

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Posted on February 10, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Music, Oscars and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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