100 Movie Musicals #37: West Side Story (1961)

A triumph of filmmaking: a fantastic score, phenomenal cinematography, all time choreography, and killer performances (with one lamentable, Tony-sized exception); undermined thoroughly by an atrocious amount of brownface.

God, it sucks about all the brownface in this movie, because it’s so close to greatness otherwise. Everything looks great, sounds great, moves great, but then you get down to the vast gap between the text’s attempt to grapple with racist tensions between different waves of immigrants, and the ways that European immigrants get to ascend to whiteness while Puerto Ricans — who are already US citizens, in 1961 no less than 2022 — are locked out of it, and you’re staring at all of these white actors in brownface and it just sits there like a turd in a bowl of soup. There’s no eating around it!

manhattan as seen from above, believe it or not

West Side Story is such an ambitious movie from the moment it opens — with an overture card that eventually reveals itself as an abstract depiction of Manhattan — with a real understanding of the ways that cinematic musicals can be inspired by stage productions of musicals but need to bring their own visual language and approach to them, and the script hammers home repeatedly the ways that whiteness protects and privileges even hardscrabble white immigrants at the expense of everyone else, I’m frankly at a loss to explain how nobody stopped the browning up. Were they not paying attention to their own story? Had they not internalized it at all? How did the actors deliver their lines without cracking?

how do you let this go forward? how do you deliver bernardo’s lines looking like this?

If — and I’ll admit that’s a huge if — you can get past that, the film is, as I said, fantastic, a giant leap forward in how American musicals are shot and framed and scored, with an approach that draws a lot more from horror techniques than from MGM. There are a ton of low and high angle shots that don’t distort or obscure the (incredible) dancing, but that do emphasize the cinematic theatricality of the numbers. The musical numbers here are a thorough break from reality, emphasized by the framing, color palette, and focus tricks; you end up with more striking still images during the numbers than we’ve seen — normally these movies live in the entire sequence, rather than any one shot, but not West Side Story.

the camera is not an in-universe human observer, the camera exists within the scene solely as a camera

The story itself is… well, I mean, it’s Romeo and Juliet, innit, with all the strengths and weaknesses that brings along. The biggest issue is that Romeo and Juliet need Shakespeare’s eloquence to make them interesting, and when you discard the poetry and drag them down nearer to the real world they’re pretty insipid. Natalie Woods’ Maria has flashes of a personality, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is just a lunk-shaped void with a nice singing voice; the script makes him out to be a hulking, quick-tempered bruiser with a sore ego, but Beymer’s performance is all affable puppy dog, and it’s deadly considering how much screen time he has. Three of the four (four!) love songs are iconic, but then the Bernstein/Sondheim rapture ends and you’re left with nothing.

tony does always get the most arresting shots, though

There’s some interesting gender stuff going on in the background, particularly with the character of Anybodys; Anybodys reads so strongly as a trans boy now, with the character demanding repeatedly to be one of the (male) members of the gang — a position he only achieves after Riff dies, and which eventually entails participating in the near-rape of Anita, the film’s intentionally queasiest moment, and the catalyst for the final murders. There’s some stuff to unpack there; some parallels to the ways that the Polish immigrants are offered an ascent to whiteness if they’ll drive out the Puerto Ricans for the cops. It’s unclear how intentional that is — Anybodys is credited as part of “Their Girls,” along with Graziella and Velma — but it was prominent enough that the character is explicitly transmasculine in the Spielberg remake.

“why don’t you act like a girl” is tony’s final line before getting shot, too

Ultimately I don’t know about this one. It’s phenomenal in so many ways, and it’s both hugely ambitious and mostly successful in achieving those ambitions; it’s just impossible to look past the racism inherent in the casting. It didn’t have to be like this. With just slightly different choices — a stronger commitment to matching the textual anti-racism of the script with a corresponding anti-racism behind and in front of the camera — this could have been an all time classic.

but then i guess it was doomed to end poorly

1 Response to “100 Movie Musicals #37: West Side Story (1961)”

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