Directors: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production: Mirisch Pictures, Seven Arts Productions, Beta Productions; Technicolor, Panavision, 70mm; running time: 152 minutes.
Producer: Robert Wise; screenplay: Ernest Lehman; photography: Linwood G. Dunn; editors: Thomas Stanford and Marshall M. Borden; assistant directors: Robert E. Relyea and Jerome M. Siegel; production design: Boris Leven; music: Leonard Bernstein; sound: Gilbert D. Merchant; sound recording: Murray Spivak; choreography: Jerome Robbins.
Cast: Natalie Wood ( Maria ); Richard Beymer ( Tony ); George Chakiris ( Bernardo ); Russ Tamblyn ( Riff ); Rita Moreno ( Anita ); Tony Mordente ( Action ); Tucker Smith ( Ice ); Simon Oakland ( Lieutenant Shrank );
Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (George
Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Cinematography,
Best Score, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and
Best Sound, 1961.
Kael, Pauline, I Lost It at the Movies , Boston, 1965.
McDonald, Dwight, On Movies , New Jersey, 1969.
Brode, Douglas, The Films of the Sixties , New Jersey, 1980.
Prouty, Howard J., in Magill's Survey of Cinema-Volume 4 , edited by Frank Magill, Englewood, New Jersey, 1980.
Staskowski, Andrea, Movie Musicals , Minneapolis, 1992.
Garebian, Keith, The Making of West Side Story , Toronto, 1995.
Leemann, Sergio, Robert Wise On His Films: From Editing Room to Director's Chair , Los Angeles, 1995.
Thompson, Frank T., Robert Wise: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, 1995.
Gussow, Mel, " West Side Story : The Beginnings of Something Great," in The New York Times , vol. 140, H5, 21 October 1990.
Kutner, C.J., "Robert Wise: Part Two: Life at the Top," in Bright Lights (Cincinnati), no. 11, Fall 1993.
Sanchez, A.S., "A Puerto Rican Reading of America," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), no. 39, June 1994.
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The film West Side Story is based on the 1950s Broadway stage play, from an idea inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet . The idea of taking one of the most famous and tragic love stories of all time and translating it to modern America, focusing it around the racial and inner city problems arising at that time (and which still exist today) was a radical one.
The Capulet and Montague families are transformed into two street gangs whose members live in the urban ghettos. The Jets (the poor, white local youth) are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) who centres his hatred on the local Puerto Ricans who have moved into the area to make a new beginning. The immigrant gang, the Sharks, are led by the charismatic Bernardo (George Chakiris), who still believes in the customs and patriarchy of his old world.
Conflict arises not just between the two groups that struggle to live together in this emerging new society, but also within the factions when the conventions and beliefs of the older society are put to the test and are questioned. Thus, Tony (Richard Beymer) is torn between his old solidarity with the Jets, his wish to escape from the ghetto and move on, and his instantaneous love for Maria, a girl from a different culture and race. Similarly, Maria (Natalie Wood) must face the conflict that arises between her loyalty to her family, as epitomized by her brother Bernardo, and her love for Tony. Both Tony and Maria must pay the price for breaking the existing rules of the dominant society—and both Tony and Bernardo are sacrificed in order to establish rules for the new order.
Garnering ten Academy Awards, West Side Story is today regarded as a classic musical. The film boasts an impressive cast, a musical score composed by Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins's choreography, which introduced a new kind of dance in musicals. Robert Wise's clever and often shocking direction brought an immediacy and pace rarely seen in musicals. The audience is immediately immersed in the plot from the opening credits when the camera zooms in at great speed on the first shot. However, critic Pauline Kael commented that the use of stereophonic music in the opening sequence left her "clutching" her head.
The racial tension is evident from the beginning when gang members chase a Puerto Rican down the street only to be pursued in turn. Brilliantly choreographed, the energetic routines illustrate the violence and intensity of living on the streets through dance and movement. Most impressive is the fact that Maria is played by Natalie Wood who could neither sing nor dance. Most of the routines in which she is featured compensate for these deficiencies through skillful choreography and a clever use of camera.
Rita Moreno is excellent as Anita, Bernardo's voluptuous and sexy girlfriend, who manages and manipulates her lover very well. The innocent gossipy antics of the Puerto Rican girls, who are alternately excited by and frightened of their new country, are contrasted with the "political games" of their male counterparts.
Although for the most part the encounters between the gangs are part of a game to keep them all amused, the fun quickly spirals out of control when the Sharks and Jets plan a final confrontation, which results in Riff's accidental stabbing by Bernardo, and Bernardo's subsequent death at Tony's hands.
Tony is the least credible character in the film. He believes that he can leave the Jets and his past behind without any problems. He sees Maria at a dance and instantly falls in love with her, ignoring all of the obvious problems arising from an interracial love match. He seems too soft to belong to a street gang; yet Tony's loyalty to his friend Riff leads him to kill Bernardo, despite the impact this will have on Maria. Even after this tragic episode Tony croons "There's a Place for Us" to Maria, a future for them somewhere—but there is nowhere to run. He is killed by Chico, a Shark gang member who is in love with Maria. Only after Tony's death, when the police arrive and Maria has condemned both gangs for the senseless deaths of Riff, Bernardo, and Tony, do the two gangs finally join together and carry Tony away. The confusion and fear on all of their faces makes children of them once more.
In spite of its sadness West Side Story ends on a positive note— with the idea that out of the violence and hatred a better society can be created in which different groups can live together.