Monday, August 22, 2011

Weekend Cinema Spotlight: West Side Story

"West Side Story" (1961)

"Please make it not be true"---haunting words spoken by Maria about her love, Tony. The truth is this film both moves the soul (and hips for some!) and tortures it all at the same time. If you love romance, musicals, dancing, and a story that reads like a play---then this is the film for you!

This film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Rome and Juliet. New York City lends itself as the backdrop where two rival gangs, the Jetts and the Sharks. In the midst of that rivalry the leader of the Jetts, Tony (played by the handsome Richard Beymer) fall in love with Maria (played by Natalie Wood) who happens to be the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (played by George Chakiris).

After the meet at a dance, both Maria and Tony instantly connect. He finds her and the share a breath-taking, utterly romantic moment on her fire escape (aka balcony like in "Romeo and Juliet"). This song is so fully of faith, hope, and love. Put tears in my eyes every time I hear it!

After they confess their feelings for one another, Maria sings the song, "I feel pretty". Every woman in love feels like they can float on air. They also feel like the most beautiful person in the world because someone they love, loves them in return. Oh L'amour! And even if you're not in love at this very moment but feel just I don't know---PRETTY---this is song will have you prancing around the house with a brush as your microphone in minutes! 

As the movie progresses you discover that this is a doomed love story in the middle of hate-filled, misunderstood youths. In a gang fight Bernardo accidentally kills Riff (played by Russ Tamblyn who was also in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and then Tony kills Bernardo. Did all of these boys mean to do it? I really don't think so but it happens.

When Maria finds out she wants to hate Tony but love wins her over. They sing "Somewhere" to one another and make love. That song always gave me goosebumps. Its just so sad and haunting---you want them to be happy and yet the whole world is against them!  After Tony leaves and Anita (played by the spectacular Rita Moreno) finds out they sing, "A boy like that" together.

Yes, that is the multi-talented Rita Moreno singing. Unfortunately that isn't Natalie Wood singing. It was dubbed by a professional singer. I read in interviews that Natalie Wood thought she could have done a better job with her accent and if trained properly would have been able to sing all the songs. Some people in the industry even argue to this day that the role of Maria should have been played by a Latina actress. I think Natalie Wood was amazing but my only gripe was her accent because it was simply awlful. The Puerto Rican accent is far more beautiful than the way it was protrayed. Of all the main characters, Rita Moreno is the only Latina and she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress!

Tony plans to run away with Maria but an officer comes by her home and she asks Anita to ask Tony to wait for her. Unfortunately the Jetts intercede and harass Anita to the point of almost rapping her. So infuriated and terrified she was that as she is being rescued by the candy shop owner she tells everyone that Maria was killed.

On a side note, I loved the character of shop owner Doc, he is disenchanted with the youth of that day and just cannot wrap around his head why they spend so much energy hating each other. He is simply confused and overwhelmed---feelings many adults today often feel with the younger generations.

Thinking that Maria is dead, Tony seeks out Chino who is carrying a gun trying to avenge the death of Bernardo. Just when Maria find him, Chino shoots him and Maria holds him in her arms until he breathes his last breathe.

Maria, horrified with what has happened takes the gun and threatens to shoot the rival gangs or but alas she cannot. This scene shook my nerves--ugh I just re-watched it and there is a knot at my throat! Natalie Wood's performance is outstanding! Just imagine everything you love taken away from you with hate. Or society despising you because of who you are or who you love or how you live your life. This final scene is heart-breaking, as simple as that.

Either way this film opens the flood gates of your heart. The songs and dancing are just the icing (although incredible incing) on the cake of a story that says that love should prevail against all odds. That we should celebrate the love two people have and not judge them for their differences be it racial, cultural, religious, or sexual. That love is LOVE.

There is another reason why this movie hits so close to home to me. Look at this picture and you will see what I mean.

This just happens to be my parents about to have their first kiss. My father met her in a club, she had a fiancee (arranged by her mother) and he had a girlfriend. My father told me the moment he looked at her he laughed to himself and said, "Oh my God that's her!".

The fact that he was a Manhattan boy and she a Bronx girl did not jive well with their peers. My father told me in the 1960's there were gangs like in "West Side Story" and that every ethic group had their own hangouts and rivalries. My father went by the beat of his own drummer and had all sorts of friends. Hummmm, when I think of it, that reminds me of someone I know---oh yeah--me!!

Anyway because of the story of how they first met and how it was in the 60's in his neighborhood as well as the fact that Natalie Wood and my mother shared similar looks, I have felt emotionally connected to this film.

Its all about hope and love and fighting for what you believe in even if the world around you is in turmoil.

I dedicated this post to the late Natalie Wood whose work I admire and treasure.


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