West Side Story, with songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, adapted for the screen from a classic stage musical, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, winner of ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, #2 of AFI’s list of the greatest musicals of all time… and, sadly, a major disappointment.
This is a case of a movie that simply hasn’t aged very well.
Partly it’s the brownface makeup the white (and even Hispanic) actors wore to portray Puerto Rican gang members, and the thick accents actors like Natalie Wood employed. Throw in the corny “daddy-o” slang and the supposedly tough gang members prancing through city streets like unicorns, and it’s just hard to take anything here seriously.
Lead actors Wood and Richard Beymer form a black hole at the center of the film, a place where charisma and genuine emotion go to die. The film’s one true spark comes in the form of Rita Moreno’s Anita. Moreno won a Supporting Actress Academy Award for her work, becoming the first Hispanic woman to win an acting Oscar.
To its credit, West Side Story does feature some excellent songs. ‘Something’s Coming,’ ‘Tonight,’ ‘Maria,’ ‘America,’ ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘Somewhere’ are all deserved classics. But these are songs I’d just as soon hear on an album, because their presentation in the film is uninspired.
One exception is today’s SOTD, ‘America,’ which gives Moreno an opportunity to shine. She will appear in Steven Spielberg’s remake (in a different role). I hope she’s not the only good thing about that version.
My heart’s devotion
Let it sink back in the ocean
Always the hurricanes blowing
Always the population growing
And the money owing
And the sunlight streaming
And the natives steaming
I like the island Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe
And put that in!
I like to be in America
Okay by me in America
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America
Buying on credit is so nice
One look at us and they charge twice
I have my own washing machine
What will you have though to keep clean?
Skyscrapers bloom in America
Cadillacs zoom in America
Industry boom in America
Twelve in a room in America
Lots of new housing with more space
Lots of doors slamming in our face
I’ll get a terrace apartment
Better get rid of your accent
Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America
Here you are free and you have pride
Long as you stay on your own side
Free to be anything you choose
Free to wait tables and shine shoes
Everywhere grime in America
Organized crime in America
Terrible time in America
You forget I’m in America
I think I’ll go back to San Juan
I know a boat you can get on (Bye Bye!)
Everyone there will give big cheer!
Everyone there will have moved here