West Side Story

Released:  1961

Cast:  Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Victor A. Gangelin, Boris Leven), Best Cinematography-Color (Daniel L. Fapp), Best Costume Design-Color (Irene Sharaff), Best Director (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins), Best Film Editing (Thomas Stanford), Best Original Score (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, Sid Ramin), Best Sound (Fred Hynes, Gordon E. Sawyer), Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on a Film (Jerome Robbins)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Writing-Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Lehman)

SUMMARY:  In New York, two rival gangs are fighting for the same territory.  One gang, the Jets, is made up of whites, mainly of Polish descent, and are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn); the other gang, the Sharks, is made up of Puerto Rican immigrants, and are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The gangs have gotten into fights numerous times, and Riff finally decides to settle things once and for all.  He decides that at the upcoming dance, he will challenge the Sharks to a winner-take-all rumble.  During the rumble, one member of the Jets will fight one member of the Sharks; Bernardo intends to fight for the Sharks, but Riff wants to have Tony fight for the Jets.  Tony founded the Jets with Riff, but has not been around much lately.  He has gotten a job in a local store, and sees no point in the gang lifestyle anymore.  When Riff asks Tony to come to the dance, Tony refuses, but Riff finally manages to convince him.  Meanwhile, Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood) and her best friend Anita (Rita Moreno), who is also Bernardo’s girlfriend are also getting ready for the dance.  Maria is particularly excited, since this will be her first dance.  At the dance, the two gangs clearly stick to their own sides of the gym, even though a social worker tries to get them to dance together.  Tony arrives, and while walking across the gym, suddenly sees Maria.  The two instantly fall in love, but are seen by both gangs.  Bernardo tries to go after Tony for talking to Maria, but Riff intervenes and asks Bernardo for a meeting at a local store.  There, they will discuss the rumble.  Bernardo sends Maria home, but Tony manages to find her apartment, and visits her on the fire escape.  He then goes to the meeting, where he convinces Bernardo and Riff to fight clean, without any guns or knives.  The rumble is set for the following night, under the highway.

At work the next day, Maria learns about the rumble from Anita.  Maria is worried by the news, but is distracted by the arrival of Tony.  Anita is horrified, and tells them both that if Bernardo finds out he will go crazy.  Maria also talks to Tony about the rumble, and tells him that he must find some way to stop it.  Tony is unsure about his ability to do this, but agrees to try.  That night, both gangs meet under the highway.  Tony shows up to try to stop the fight, but Bernardo refuses to back down.  Instead, he eggs Tony further and further, but Tony won’t fight back.  Finally, Riff charges into the fight and pulls a switchblade.  Bernardo also pulls a knife, and the two begin fighting as other Jets hold Tony back.  Tony finally manages to shake them off, and pulls Riff off of Bernardo.  However, Riff gets away from Tony, and charges Bernardo.  Bernardo is waiting for him, and knifes Riff in the stomach.  Tony suddenly loses all reservations and picks up Riff’s knife, then charges at Bernardo and stabs him.  All the other gang members then join in, before approaching police sirens break up the fight.  Back at her apartment, Maria is waiting for Tony on the roof.  Before he can arrive, Chino bursts through the door and tells her that Tony killed Bernardo.  Tony arrives shortly after, and tells Maria about what happened.  He tells Maria that he is going to turn himself in, but Maria pleads with him to stay with her instead.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Jets learn that Chino has a gun, and is looking for Tony.  They all spread out to look for Tony and warn him.  Anita comes to the apartment while Tony is still there; before he leaves, he and Maria make plans to elope.  Tony then sets out to put together some money for them; he and Maria plan to meet up later at Doc’s drugstore.  However, Maria is delayed when the police arrive to talk to her.  Instead, she sends Anita to tell Tony that she will be late.  When Anita gets to Doc’s, the Jets are there, and intimidate and harass Anita.  In retaliation, Anita announces that Chino has killed Maria.  When Tony learns of this, he goes out looking for Chino, asking to be shot as well.  Suddenly, he sees Maria, and the two run toward each other.  Just as they reach each other, Chino shoots Tony.  He dies in Maria’s arms, surrounded by both gangs.  The gangs are about to fight again, but are stopped by an impassioned speech from Maria.  When the police arrive, several Jets pick up Tony’s body; when Tony’s arm falls down, several Sharks step in to help.  All the rest of the assembled gang members slowly disperse.

MY TAKE:  Obviously, this is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, moved to New York and set to music.  The first time I watched this movie, my lasting impression was of the cheesiness of the fighting.  This time around, I was much more impressed.  This may be because this movie was made by a lot of the same people who made The Sound of Music, my all-time favorite movie.  It’s also just a compelling story with great music and some great dancing.  These scenes are the highlights of the movie:  personally, I really liked “America” and the scene where the gangs are at the dance.  There’s one particular part where they’re basically having a dance-off, and they’re all doing the mambo.  The Jets do a good job, but they’re absolutely put to shame by the hip-shaking of the Sharks.  The only issue I had was the time span of the movie:  the whole thing takes place over two days.  It’s just hard to believe that two people, even if they are teenagers, could become so obsessed with each other in two days.  Of course, I also hate that Tony dies at the end.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed it.

Fun facts:  Russ Tamblyn plays Riff, the leader of the Jets.  He also played youngest brother Gideon in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the one who pretends to be a cat to lure his girl out of the house), and is the father of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants actress Amber Tamblyn.

Marni Nixon dubs Maria’s singing voice.  Marni Nixon also famously dubbed Audrey Hepburn for My Fair Lady, among other things, and she’s one of the nuns in The Sound of Music.

RATING:  Great adaptation of a classic story.


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