West Side Story (1961)


People keep referencing this movie, so I finally watched it. While watching, though, I couldn’t help but think to myself that there is no way this movie would have made any money today. It is long; there are large choreographed dances that have the potential to be boring; and the story is rather banal. That being said, I’m glad it was made in 1961 and not 2010 because the movie was actually brilliant. Different, but brilliant. And it needed the environment of the ’60s where Hollywood was very much about the epic (Ben-Hur was in 1959 and Lawrence of Arabia was in 1962).

West Side Story opens with a wordless dance sequence where the Jets and the Sharks lay claim to their neighborhoods and make their presence known. Quickly, we see the plot unfold: Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant, goes to a dance with her best friend, Anita, and her brother (and Anita’s boyfriend), Bernardo. There, Bernardo sees Maria dancing with a white man, Tony, from the rival gang. From the rest of the movie forward, it is obvious that the star-struck lovers can never be openly together. Although Shakespeare is not a credited author, it is abundantly clear that this story will follow the trajectory of Romeo and Juliet. As any student of literature knows, this story does not end well.

What separates West Side Story is its theatricality. Lately, there have been movie musicals coming out that try to ground the singing and dancing in reality. They try to explain why people are bursting into song. West Side Story is unashamed of its love to theater and embraces the staging of well, everything. Even the fight sequences are intricately choreographed movements revolving around one’s partner.

Photo credit: Esquire

On a social context, West Side Story brought immigrant strife to the forefront. America is built on immigrants and yet, every time a new group joins, they will without question be ostracized. Rita Moreno plays Anita, a fiesty Puerto Rican woman who stays true to her heritage. The rooftop scene “Coming to America” is a classic and the way she flares her skirt is iconic. Maria, on the other hand, is younger and more inclined to assimilate into American culture, particularly by dating an American boy. Interestingly, Maria is played by Natalie Wood, who is nowhere near Puerto Rican. If her acting acumen was large enough to warrant this change in race, I would let it slide. However, it is not. It is obvious that Wood is faking an accent and she just doesn’t have the latina vibe. It seems the Academy agrees as West Side Story won 10 Oscars, but did not even give a nomination to Wood.

Nonetheless, this movie is a classic. Now, I finally understand that Santana song and the homage Michael Jackson paid to it in his video for Beat It. A must-see for pop culture junkies!

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