West Side Story casts Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers into a rough mid-century Manhattan neighborhood. Instead of the warring Capulet and Montague families, there are the rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are white boys… children of European immigrants (polacks, wops, and micks) and the Sharks are Puerto Ricans (spics), recently moved to AMER-EE-CA! Leave behind your political-correctness when you watch this one… this is a world where the ethnic slurs are dropped freely and stereotypes run wild.
I love the aerial photos looking down on Manhattan that open the film. It’s so beautiful… until you get down to ground level! There you see the grit and grime of the city. I like the way the film ends up, too… painting the credits as graffiti on a wall. Very cool!
Of course, I love the movie in between, as well. It’s been a while since I’d seen it, and interesting seeing it right after Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The first thing that struck me is how much more believable the love affair between Romeo and Juliet (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) is in that film compared to the Tony/Maria pairing (played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood). Zeffirelli cast unknown youngsters in the parts, and they wear their youth and innocence on their sweet, naive sleeves! There’s a lot of emotion there, and the love affair is really the focus of the film. In West Side Story, I find the love affair kind of tepid and tangential to the whole neighborhood war thing.
The hoodlums in West Side Story appear a bit quaint to my 21st century eyes with their Leave-it-to-Beaverish and Greaser looks. And they are hard for me to accept as high schoolers. Wood and Beymer were in their 20s, and Rita Moreno (Anita) was 30… and looked and acted it.
But I’m nit-picking. I love West Side Story. I just think the love story part of it is not quite as believable as in the Zeffirelli movie. Also, I’ve been reading a lot about Jungian psychology lately, and I just see anima projections pinging all over the place (in both films). It’s all love at first sight and pouring every ounce of trust into their feelings of the moment for someone glimpsed across the room! Yet of course, it doesn’t matter in these stories, since there is no future—literally no tomorrow, for these lovers.
So what’s to love about West Side Story? Hmmm, let me count the ways. First, there’s the music. You have Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim collaborating, and it’s a great score. Thanks to a reader who emailed me about the lyrical similarity between What is a Youth from the Zeffirelli film and Somewhere in West Side Story… I definitely see the connection, and both are beautiful songs.
Then there’s the dancing. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. It really doesn’t get better. So, sit back and enjoy the song and dance numbers… it’s pure entertainment. And I’m not belittling the acting — the film won 10 Oscars, including best picture and best supporting actor and actress (George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Anita). It’s a great film!
Let’s talk about cinematography (another Oscar!). I watched Doctor Zhivago with my niece a few years ago and she said she wrote a college paper about the use of the color yellow to symbolize Lara throughout the movie. Once she mentioned it, it was so obvious! Bright yellow fields of daffodils, the bright yellow sun, Lara’s theme playing each time. Lara, Lara, dreamy, lovely Lara (more anima projection, ha ha!).
Anyhow, that got me thinking about color a bit when I watch movies, and West Side Story is chock-full of color. The Sharks wear red and the Jets wear blue and yellow, most of the time. That kind of color-coding also is evident in Zeffirelli’s film, where the Capulets tend to wear orangey and mustardy tones while the Montagues favor dusty blues and browns. It’s a handy way to tell the star-belly sneetches from the plain ones.
Colors get complicated in West Side Story, though. Can anyone help me understand the color code? The backgrounds are often cast in primary-colored shadows. There are big blocks of Crayola-bright reds, blues, and sometimes yellows and greens. Red clothes hanging on a line. Red highway underpass. Red ironwork balcony. A line up of all blue cars on one street. All green cars on another street. A red truck… but not just an ordinary red truck, but solid, bright red, including red fenders, bumpers and hubcaps. Yellow paint spilled on rivals.
I found myself always trying to decipher the meaning of the colors. What’s the meaning of the red belt on Maria’s white dress? The Technicolor twirling when she tries on that dress. The yellow jackets at the dance? The red walls at the dance? The blue walls at Maria’s apartment building? The purple skirt on Anita? Then the blue skirt on Anita. What’s it all mean? Just pretty colors?
Most everything is in bold, bright colors except a series of side-by-side doors that are muddy Easter egg shades. Why pastels? Why doors? And pastel dresses at the bridal shop where Anita and Maria work. As you can see, there are many questions about color floating around in my brain. I was very distracted by color while watching the whole film! Can anyone help me make sense of it?
One color mystery I did decode (I think): The doors to Maria’s bedroom are multi-colored glass panes. I figured her bedroom is the place where all the colors mix… Tony and Maria are color blind. They just see each other, not the personas (spic, polack, Shark, Jet) that everyone else sees.
Oh and another color (or lack thereof) mystery solved… Doc’s store is noticeably devoid of color. I think that’s because it’s neutral territory—a place where both Jets and Sharks can go. I like Doc, whose role parallels that of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet (without quite the same awful responsibility for the fatal plot twist). Doc is the voice of reason and calm. He says to Tony, “Why do you kids live like there’s a war on?” And of course, that’s the big question. What is the point of all the conflict? Just play it cool, boy.
A little trivia… thanks to a reader who pointed out that a young Bernardo (George Chakiris) can be glimpsed as a back up dancer behind Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. I’ll keep my eye peeled next time I watch that. And, I got a kick out of seeing Gomez from The Addams Family (John Astin) as the organizer at the dance. Pretty funny!
Next up, a blast from the past! I unearth some old school work.
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