West Side Story (review)

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Shakespeare on Love

West Side Story is a brilliant updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two warring families of Verona now two streets gangs of kids from two different immigrant cultures coexisting in one New York City neighborhood.

Romeo is Tony (Richard Beymer), a member of the white gang the Jets, and Juliet is Maria (Natalie Wood), sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), head of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. In addition to the racial barrier between the two groups, there’s the huge culture gap: the Jets are first-generation Americans, children of European immigrants; the young Sharks are themselves recently arrived from Puerto Rico. For all their brief history as Americans, the Jets feel they’ve got a right to defend their turf against newcomers; the Sharks feel the torn loyalties of most immigrants, homesick for their mother country and facing an uphill climb against discrimination, but also eager for the opportunities America offers. Story is set in the New York City of my parents — my mother, a first-generation Irish-Catholic American from the Bronx, got grief for marrying a first-generation Swedish-Lutheran American from Manhattan. In such an insular atmosphere, the divide between the Jets and the Sharks seems insurmountable.

Tony and Maria bridge that gulf briefly, despite the misgivings of his friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn, in the best performance of the film) and her friend Anita (Rita Moreno). The inescapably tragic story plays out through Stephen Sondheim’s clever lyrics; Leonard Bernstein’s classic, eminently hummable score; and Jerome Robbins’s fabulous choreography, all of which could be seen as a forerunner to rap in acknowledging that there is a culture of the streets, in seeing lyricism in the way kids jump on a basketball court or saunter down the street.

West Side Story demonstrates yet again the enduring quality of Shakespeare’s work, how he explored personal desires and social structures so intrinsically human that we can still identify with his characters 400 years later and recognize how our reinvented society mirrors those of his plays. He knew that our propensity for dividing people into Us and Them is as inevitable and perhaps as unavoidable as our pursuit of love. Without a doubt, 500 years from now will see another new version of Romeo and Juliet, with him actually from Mars and her actually from Venus.

Oscars Best Motion Picture 1961
AFI 100 (1998 list): #41

unforgettable movie moment:
The Jets explain why they’re so bad in “Officer Krupke”: “I’m depraved on accounta I’m deprived,” satirizing society’s despair at dealing with them.

previous Best Picture:
1960: The Apartment
next Best Picture:
1962: Lawrence of Arabia

previous AFI 100 film:
40: North by Northwest
next AFI 100 film:
42: Rear Window

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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