Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "West Side Story" (1961)

Scene from West Side Story
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Written By: Ernest Lehman (Screenplay), Arthur Laurents (Book by), Jerome Robbins (Play conceived by), William Shakespeare (uncredited)
Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer
Genre: Crime, Drama, Musical
Running Time: 152 minutes

Oscar Wins: 10
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris)
-Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Musical Score

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Guns of Navarone
-The Hustler
-Judgment at Nuremberg

And the winner is...

In the echelon of movie musicals, there are few that have regarded as acclaimed of a legacy as directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story. The reason could simply be that the musical numbers are astounding, bringing some of the best dance choreography ever filmed. It could also be the love story, which updated "Romeo & Juliet" to a contemporary setting and used gang warfare as additional commentary on race relations. Whatever the reason, it's a powerful musical that captures the vibrancy and ingenuity of the medium, bringing to life something powerful in the romance and drama. Of course, this is made especially interesting, as some of the film's most iconic moments were subject to censorship issues, a director being fired, and vocal dubbing. Even then, it's still impossible to top its achievements.

West Side Story started off as a successful musical, running for 732 performances. When writing the music, Leonard Bernstein wanted to make it the first musical to use profanity. Issues arose when doing so would cause shipping copies of the soundtrack across state lines would be considered illegal. Thus, lines were changed to meet the demands. When it was adapted to film, the lyrics were again changed to take out any sexually implicit or explicit content, including several lines in "Gee, Officer Krupke" involving drug use and abuse. The song would be banned in England because of this. Likewise, the choice to end the song "Gee, Officer Krupke... Fuck you" was change to "Gee, Officer Krupke... Krup you." There are various songs whose entire passages were changed in order to get around censorship laws of the time.

Wise and Robbins were keen on casting young actors, as they believed that looks were more important. This meant that a large portion of the Broadway cast was ineligible for being too old. Wise originally wanted Elvis Presley for the role of Tony, but Presley refused because he didn't want to be associated with gang roles - a fact made more ironic since he stabbed a gangster that was a Shark member in the film King Creole three years previously. The actor who played Tony, Richard Beymer, wanted the role to be tougher. Wise refused this and wanted Tony to be the most sympathetic gangster. Beymer was upset about this and was reported to have walked out of the premiere. The role of Maria featured auditions by the likes of Suzanne Pleschette, Valerie Harper, and Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn dropped out after becoming pregnant. The role eventually went to Natalie Wood. Of the cast, there are a few held over from the Broadway production, including William Bramley (Officer Krupke), and only George Chakiris (Bernardo) wasn't dubbed - largely thanks to having no complicated solo.

Robbins worked for six months with the actors to get their dance moves down. This meant that almost every actor involved had at some point sustained an injury. Because this was Robbins' first movie and had mostly worked in theater, he became notorious for going over budget thanks to reshooting several scenes. He was fired, though four musical numbers remain intact: The Prologue, "Cool," "I Feel Pretty," and "America." While Wise did a considerable amount more in the production, he still gave Robbins co-directing credits. Like the songs, some were edited to fit the medium better. "America" had several lyrics changed in order to avoid seeming offensive to Puerto Ricans. Many songs, specifically "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "I Feel Pretty," were moved to earlier in order to enhance the dramatic tension in the third act. An intermission was considered, but eventually rejected in order to emphasize the aforementioned tension.

The film became a worldwide smash upon its release. The film ran in Paris for 249 weeks (almost five years), becoming France's longest running film theatrically. The soundtrack also temporarily became the highest selling soundtrack in history, despite several of the songs being dubbed by people such as Betty Wand and Marni Nixon (who also dubbed vocals for Audrey Hepburn in the Best Picture winner My Fair Lady - thus earning her the nickname "Ghostess with the Mostest"). It became the highest grossing film of 1961 behind 101 Dalmatians. Among the film's more bizarre fans is Transformers director Michael Bay, which he discussed extensively in a New York Times piece while doing the finishing edits on Pearl Harbor, praising it for its vibrant energy and colorfulness. While nothing has come to fruition, director Steven Spielberg has also discussed remaking the film.

The film was also a big hit at The Academy Awards. It took home 10 awards, beating Gigi (with nine wins) for most wins by a musical. Three films have won more: Ben-HurTitanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won 11 awards - though West Side Story maintains the title of most Oscars won by a musical. This was also the first film to win Best Picture with two co-directors. The only other won would be 2007's No Country for Old Men, directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. It was also one of two musicals that Wise directed that won Best Picture with a protagonist named Maria (the other being The Sound of Music). Among its cast, Best Supporting Actress winner Rita Moreno would go on become an EGOT: a person who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards - the highest award offered in each respective field. 

The film has received it own legacy as being one of the most revered movie musicals in history. The stage version has received many revivals in its wake. In 1971, it was rereleased on a double bill with Around the World in Eighty Days. Both films would make their television debuts the following year with the musical debuting in March on NBC. The film was also restored on its 50th anniversary in 2011. The score, which Bernestein was disappointed in upon its release, was rerecorded by Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Leonard Bernstein Office. It would be closer to the stage musical. Stan Kenton recorded a jazz version of the music, which won a Grammy. Beyond that, the film has topped countless lists of the best musicals of all time and whose music is so iconic that it has been referenced in countless films and TV shows, such as Analyze That and Anger Management.

Even if the film sounds like it had a problematic shooting schedule, there's no denying the staying power of West Side Story. Beyond being an inventive update of a Shakespeare classic, it gave us the definitive versions of various iconic songs such as "I Feel Pretty." It's a timeless romance that captures the complexities of gang warfare while also presenting some of the best choreographed dance numbers out there. It may not be a flawless film, packed with dubbing and fired directors, but its final product is something that still holds up as pure, overwhelming entertainment. There's a reason that it's still considered among the best. It's art with a purpose, and the great songs don't hurt, either.

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