WEST SIDE STORY (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961)

There’s no accounting for taste. What is the attraction of cheap sentiment, even sometimes for intelligent individuals? I wondered this when someone I know stated what couldn’t possibly be true: that West Side Story, the hideous, campy musical version of Romeo and Juliet, placed on his list of ten favorite movies. The impossible becomes possible, however, when films aren’t judged by the light of their own merit (mise-en-scène, expressive use of camera, editing technique, etc.) but are instead judged by the degree of a viewer’s attachment to them. This is appreciation of art by mystical hocus-pocus. In a way it’s inarguable, because it admits no debatable basis in the achievement of the work itself. It really has nothing to do with the work itself.

An appallingly glib piece of entertainment and easily one of the worst Hollywood musicals of all time, West Side Story comes from Shakespeare’s play by way of a stage musical adaptation by Arthur Laurents, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The studio hired Robbins to direct the film as well but, when his painstaking perfectionism during rehearsals induced nightmares of a rising budget, the studio, first, brought in Robert Wise to direct the nonmusical scenes and, finally, tossed out Robbins altogether. The opening number, the Jet gang song, Robbins dazzlingly directed. One of the other scenes he shot is the nighttime rooftop “America,” where the Puerto Rican-American boys wax cynical about their new country in a dancing game of oneupmanship with the Puerto Rican-American girls, who enthuse over their new country: the film’s one glorious passage. Robbins here analyzes the emotions involved, finding them identical beneath the façade of difference: the girls seem enthusiastic to mask their fear of America’s looming betrayal, while the boys act cynical to mask their fear of America’s looming betrayal. It’s the adolescent heartache beneath the spirited play of each side making fun of the other that momentarily takes this otherwise rhetorical film into the realm of truth, the realm of art. Nothing else in the film, however, is analytical; everything else is blunt, pushy, one-dimensional, where what you see is all that you get. This is the unwise Wise way—the way of Executive Suite (1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The Sound of Music (1965), to mention a few of Wise’s other films.

The film is set in contemporary New York City, not Verona, Italy. The class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets has been translated into a turf battle between two hooligan gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are first-generation Americans whose immigrant parents arrived from Europe earlier in the decade; the Sharks have newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Tony, the film’s Romeo, is a former (and founding) Jet; he falls in puppy-love with Maria, the film’s Juliet, whose brother, Bernardo, the film’s Tybalt, is a Shark. Riff, Tony’s best friend, is the film’s Mercutio. Bernardo kills Riff; Tony kills Bernardo. Bernardo’s gang kills Tony.

Following, I presume, the musical play, the film abandons all attempt to portray the parents and their relationship with their kids. In Shakespeare’s play, the kids have inherited their quarrel from their parents, who now, once the authority governing the region warns them on pain of death to keep the peace, do their best to rein in their quarrelsome offspring. The generational inheritance is linked by Shakespeare to the cyclical nature of violence, but it’s more than irony that the violence they have raised their children to believe in now threatens the adult males with capital punishment. The intercession of the Prince aims at a higher, broader frame of reference; Shakespeare believes that the stability of the community and of the state is at stake. Moreover, the origin of the conflict in no way exonerates the young who continue it. This is a tragedy of failed responsibility on two fronts: the failure of the elders to train their offspring properly in the requirements of social behavior, and the failure of the young themselves to restrain themselves from violence regardless of the model of behavior their parents have provided. Romeo and Juliet aren’t fortune’s fools; they are utterly responsible for the fate that befalls them, and that is the suicides of both, despite the meddlesomeness of Friar Lawrence, who embodies irresponsibility in his quest for love to reconcile everyone and solve everything. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions.) Wise’s pop film version, aiming at no serious social critique, discards the heroine’s death, and in fact discards the hero’s suicide. These changes alone threaten to make West Side Story meaningless. Just as the film Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) went around the musical play in order to restore some of author Christopher Isherwood’s original intent, West Side Story would have been wise, if not Wise, to consider the Shakespeare better.

In dispensing with the centrally important parents, especially Juliet’s, the film places a ridiculous burden on the one remaining adult of consequence, Doc, the proprietor of the drugstore at which ambitious Tony works. Doc is the film’s translation of Friar Lawrence: a sour, liberal, kid-scolding and (as Pauline Kael has pointed out) impotent Jew. This horrible stereotype, added to the one non-Catholic character’s tokenism, damages the credibility of the piece enormously, because Friar Lawrence has in effect been banished to the fringes of the action, whereas in truth, to compensate for the reduction of the kids’ parents to offscreen voices, he should command a more central role. This “Friar Lawrence” no longer believes in the conciliatory power of love and therefore refrains from serious meddling on this or any other basis. He is purely victim himself, as are his “Romeo” and “Juliet.” This is rank sentimentality. Shakespeare’s play derives its modest complexity—this isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays—from the theme of responsibility to which the culpability of Romeo and Juliet, and of their “adult” intermediary, Friar Lawrence, is essential. Hapless victimization may draw scads of tears from self-pitying teenagers, but it’s an enormous drop from the play’s more rigorous intentions.

Clearly, then, the film ransacks a substantial play to create a confection that flees the original serious and significant intent. It’s nothing but eye-candy with a social message attached—a message now empty because it’s unrelated to any theme that the film as a whole pursues. Kids can’t help being victims; such a comforting message to adolescents is nothing like what Shakespeare was after.

Moreover, apart from the contributions by Robbins already noted, the film is formally disastrous. It proceeds by scenes, not shots, and includes full-screen inserted closeups to grab at the audience’s adolescent capacity to identify with Tony and Maria. Rather than analyzing their self-destructive course, which as I have said it has conveniently discarded, the film blurs these two children with an application of gooey, cotton-candy soft focus. (It’s Romeo and Juliet not from Shakespeare’s perspective but from the perspective of the kids’ own rationalizations.) Let me, however, dispose of an argument wrongly and repeatedly brought against the film. Many who reject the film insist, “Gangs in reality don’t sing and dance in the streets.” (Actually, more recently, in some cases they do.) This is a specious quarrel; the film is perfectly entitled to create a distancing metaphor for the reality of gangs. Realism, naturalism, whatever you want to call it, is one way to proceed; it’s not the only way. Rather, the film is a mess because it inconceivably fails to hold the Romeo and Juliet characters accountable for their tragedy, one-half of which it erases, anyhow. This is Romeo and Juliet for the lightheaded, faint-hearted or intractably sentimental.

Seven years later, Franco Zeffirelli would make a terrible film of Romeo and Juliet that is nonetheless several times better than this one, not least of all because it fully grasps Shakespeare’s thematic intent in the case of Friar Lawrence. In 1996, a film version of the play even worse than Wise’s appeared: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which again mangled the play’s intent by flattering young audiences, and showcased the incompetent acting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, who were just about the worst Romeo and Juliet imaginable.

But not quite. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, both former child stars (Wise had already directed Beymer in the 1953 So Big), are dreadful as Tony and Maria; nothing that either does convinces, and both by turns are ludicrous with their stiff bodies and facial antics. Another former child star, Russ Tamblyn, as Riff, comes off best in a lighthearted role. George Chakiris, tall, limber and intense, makes a good Bernardo. (Chakiris, yet another former child star, had played Riff in the British stage production.) Rita Moreno deepens and softens Anita, the feisty Puerto Rican stereotype she was handed, a transposition of Shakespeare’s bawdy nurse, and now Tybalt’s—Bernardo’s—main squeeze. She gives a fair performance, but her competence is scarcely necessary for what she really brings to the role: delightfully overflowing sensuality. However, while Tamblyn and Chakiris do their own singing, Beymer, Wood and Moreno are dubbed, respectively, by Jimmy Bryant, Marni Nixon and Betty Wand. High points of Moreno’s performance involve her flapping her lips while Wand’s magical pipes are heard; there should have been no Oscar for Moreno. (West Side Story won ten Oscars, including as best picture and for Chakiris, who later perhaps shrunk and morphed into Clinton political advisor George Stephanopoulos.)

Wise’s rigid framing, a signature of his incompetent technique, does incredible visual damage to Robbins’s exhilarating street choreography and, of course, no one, including Robbins, can do anything about Wood’s inability to dance. She is embarrassing in everything she does and doesn’t do.

I will give her this, though: she can’t possibly sing any worse than Nixon. One must also note that, except for “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a satirical song aimed at society’s attempts to figure out the causes of teen discontent and malcontent, Leonard Bernstein’s songs are sometimes syrupy, always dreary. One imagines the show belonged to Robbins, not Bernstein or Laurents.

One of the passes this silly film has frequently been given is that it has been spared comparison with Shakespeare’s play. What a trick. One appreciates the necessity of the ploy, however. Imagine this: a consideration of the musical film Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968) apart from a comparison with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. You get the point: Shakespeare sets such a high standard that people go oddly out of their way not to invoke comparisons with his work. But ultimately the achievement of Wise’s film can be evaluated only by comparing it with the original work it seeks to translate into new, contemporary terms.

Take the Bard and avoid the barf.

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