Co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (who is also the choreographer), this big-screen adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story” explores the main theme of William Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”- forbidden love, as well as the underlying topics of cultural identity and immigration issues, with incredible dexterity and entertaining vivacity. The soul-touching musical score provided by Leonard Bernstein (who, by the way, used to be the music director for the NY Philharmonic and also was in charge of supplying the songs for the stage production) gets the audience under the skins of the characters and has them feel all the emotions present.
Just like the Montagues and the Capulets, the most notorious rival families of Verona, the West Side-based gangs of the Jets (formed by working-class white Americans) and the Sharks (consisting of Puerto Rican immigrants) are constantly disturbing the peace of the Manhattan streets with their boisterous feuds over territories. Despite the fact that all of their movements resemble rehearsed stage combat or even medieval knight chivalry rather than real-life gang violence, there is an edge-of-the seat suspense every time a kick is marked, a punch is thrown or a knife switchblade is flashed. At times, the dispute gets physical to such a degree that the NYC police (unlike yet believable substitute for the Veronese Prince) have to interfere in order to settle the outstanding matters.
So far, it looks like nothing short of a gangster movie with a touch of the classics and elements of the stage.
Yet, the thirst for blood yields to the desire for flirt and love at a dance party attended by both the Jets and the Sharks where the former member of the white gang Anton- Tony (Richard Beymer), who has been recently re-united with his brothers-in-arms, falls for the timid yet charming Maria (Natalie Wood). There might be nothing wrong with this summer love flick except for the fact that Maria is Puerto Rican and not any Puerto Rican but…the sister of the leader of the Sharks Bernardo (George Chakiris). On top of all, this Puerto Rican Juliet is engaged to gang member Chino (Jose DeVega) and is the best friend of Chino’s sister Anita (Rita Moreno).
From that point on, their clandestine love affair is presented as an emotional and even physical roller coaster. Tony and Maria try their best to express their feelings by taking mock vows with mannequins as witnesses at the bridal shop where the Puerto Rican Juliet works and arranging secret rendez-vouses under fire escapes. Indeed, the mannequins are the perfect props to reveal the theatrical side of the film and the typical NYC substitutes for the Verona balcony are a reminder of the class differentiation between the original Romeo and Juliet and their West Side counterparts. The character of Anita, on the other hand, stands for the Nurse, despite her relative equality with Maria in terms of social position and age- she is the sole real witness to their improvised wedding, she is the one to comfort her best friend when Bernardo is mortally stabbed by Tony during another gang war, she is the one to thwart Maria’s plot to run away with her forbidden lover by delivering the untrue news that her friend is dead.
Indeed, despite her initial reluctance to the relationship between Maria and Tony, she later sees it as a matter of free choice- one of the main reasons why she has immigrated to America.
Unlike the true Romeo and Juliet story where both lovers take their own lives, in this 1950’s version Maria simply does not have the courage to shoot herself, despite her utter desperation with the death of her beloved who is killed by Chino. Yet, the major dramatic ordeal of both stories remains.
Natalie Wood really illuminated the whole movie with her singing talent, incredible dancing skills, and the believable embodiment into her character of Maria. Even though she is from Russian origin (born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko), Wood makes Maria look like an all-Puerto Rican type of girl. Given the fact that this actress has two Oscar nominations under her belt (Best Supporting Actress in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Best Actress in a Leading Role in “West Side Story”), her greatly believable performance is not a surprise. Even though the believability of his character is not as strong as that of Wood, the ethnic Greek Chakiris (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) also shows a lot of vigor in his portrayal of a typical Puerto Rican gang member.
Yet, his way of embodying a person from another ethnicity is rather theatro-choreographical- the black dye on his face highlights the attempt at Puerto-Ricanness and his dance movements steal every scene. He probably won the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor for this theatricality of his. Unlike Wood and Chakiris, Richard Beymer (“Twin Peaks”) delivers a much bleaker performance. He seems too old and unhandsome to play a Romeo-like character, first of all, and his on screen presence is rather stiff. His gasping for last breath in Maria’s arms at the end of the movie is the top of artificiality.
Yes, all of the actors have strong performances. Yet, the absolute star of “West Side Story” was no other than Rita Moreno- the first Hispanic to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, and an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress in “West Side Story”). Utilizing her native Puerto Rican charm, her cabaret voice, and her knack for musicals ( a Broadway debutante at thirteen In “Skydrift”), Moreno made the character of the Nurse-like Anita one of the most noteworthy, believable, and pivotal. Ironically, she was the only real Puerto Rican to play a Puerto Rican, unlike Wood and Chakiris.
The soundtrack was also very compatible with the characters’ attitude and emotions- one can question the American identity while listening to Rita Moreno singing “America” and almost feel the pre-nuptial excitement invoked by Natalie Wood’s soft voice in “I Feel Pretty.”
With its stellar cast, mesmerizing musical score, swift choreography, and ingenuous modernization of a classical story, “West Side Story” is incredible to watch.