Saturday, August 21, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #2

2. West Side Story (1961)

The combination of musical jazz dancing, beautiful symphonic-style score and the dramatic tension of a William Shakespeare tragedy make for this landmark cinematic masterpiece. I think what I love the most about this musical (and the movie) is the legendary creatives behind this wonderful work of art. Leonard Bernstein was a brilliant composer and his musical scores (and symphonic suites) showed that. Just listening to the opening chords of this musical get my heart pumping. Arthur Laurents is an amazing writer and librettist, plus Ernest Lehman (one of the most underrated screenwriters of all-time) beutifully adapted Laurents' stage script. Stephen Sondheim, at the beginning of his career, wrote some of his best lyrics to accompany Bernstein's music. And was there ever a better director-choreographer than Jerome Robbins? His glavanic, latin-flavored dances make this musical legend what it is. His work is so indelibly marked on this show that every revival and every production worldwide uses his original steps in some way. All of these people (plus the film mastery of co-director Robert Wise) are among the many, many, many reasons I adore this movie-musical.

When Jerome Robbins' friend, actor Montgomery Clift, was rehearsing for a stage production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in 1947, Robbins began thinking of the idea of the story being set amongst the (then) modern world of New York City. Together with Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, Robbins began fleshing out the characters and how the story would play out. Robbins and Laurents decided to use the street gang wars occurring at the time in New York's West Side, where a large amount of young Puerto Rican and other Latino immigrants had begun to settle. Laurents was able to tap young composer Stephen Sondheim (with some prodding from Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein II) to write the lyrics for the show. All four men convinced legendary producer Harold Prince and his business partner Robert E. Griffith to produce the show on Broadway. The musical opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in September of 1957 and featured Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence as the star-crossed lovers (and also featured Chita Rivera in a scene-stealing supporting performance). The show received mixed reviews because of its dramatic subject matter, but obtained more respect as the show toured the United States (and had a successful London production).

The Mirisch Brothers, for United Artists studio, purchased the rights to the film and knew that they should have Jerome Robbins' input. They decided to have the more established film director Robert Wise and Robbins share the directorship. While Wise and Robbins' directing style were extremely different (so different that the Mirisch Brothers fired Robbins halfway through filming), the film adaptation rendered is a very masterful edition of the Broadway show. With slight changes in structure (thanks to Ernest Lehman with assistance from Sondheim and Laurents), the story of the Caucasian Jets versus the Puerto Rican Sharks is still as tense as it was on stage. The lovers, Puerto Rican girl Maria and former Jet member Tony (played by Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, respectively) are still as romantic and passionate. Wood especially gives an emotionally beautiful performance (even though her singing is dubbed by the fabulous Hollywood ghost-dubber Marni Nixon). Beymer is wide-eyed and lovingly naive as Tony, as he needs to be (Beymer's singing, too, is dubbed by singer Jimmy Bryant). And, of course, the supporting performances of the ensemble cast are energetic, powerful and perfect especially Russ Tamblyn as Jet leader Riff, George Chakiris as Sharks leader (and Maria's brother) Bernardo and the phenomenal Rita Moreno as Bernardo's girl, Anita. The movie was a huge box-office hit (as was its soundtrack) and the critics adored it. The film went on to win 10 Academy Awards (the most for ANY movie-musical) including Best Picture, Best Director (for both Wise and Robbins, the first co-director team to win) and Supporting Oscars for both George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. It is a tremendous musical that has made several great films list from the American Film Institute to Entertainment Weekly to even my own (and that's the only one that counts!).

Next Post: #1

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