I’ve mentioned several times before how much I love living in LA…mostly because of the cool movie events which are held all year round.On Monday, July 18th, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a 70mm print of the 1961 movie musical West Side Story. Better yet, there was a panel with Walter Mirisch (the producer), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), and Maria Jimenez Henley (one of the dancers).

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Walter Mirisch (Producer), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), and Maria Jimenez Henley (dancer) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Monday, July 18th 2016

Before we get to the panel, though, let me talk about the film. I was introduced to West Side Story as a little girl and though I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I do remember how affected I was by it. I also remember wanting to sing and dance like they could. At my young age, I didn’t realize how unrealistic a goal that was. The dancing was so intricate, the movie had months of rehearsal and of course, the singing of the main stars was dubbed.

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Man, those JETS. #DanceGoals

On a purely cinematic level, this film falls into the same category as Gone with the Wind. West Side Story is a film made to be seen on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still great on a television. But, being in an audience, watching this film is a totally different experience. It’s a shared experience: people cheer, people cry. It’s completely absorbing. The film is, of course, based on the Broadway show of the same name. Walter Mirisch, the producer, saw the show with his wife and knew he had to make it. It may, story-wise, be a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, but at the same time, it’s so much more. The songs are still good, even almost sixty years later.

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This song was EVERYTHING to me.

If you’ve never seen West Side Story, here are just a few reasons you might want to get watch it…LIKE NOW.

The Cast

Natalie Wood was 23 years old when she played Maria. Her latest movie, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, caught the attention of producer Walter Mirisch. It is said that Natalie desperately wanted her Splendor co-star, Warren Beatty to get the part of Tony. As such, during filming, there was apparently some resentment towards Richard Beymer who ended up playing Tony. Still, Natalie’s performance sells the film. She had something truly special, some sort of an indescribable “it” factor that made her appealing, truthful and memorable.

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That dress though! #FashionGoals

Truly, Beymer was probably a bit miscast, but looking back on the film, his not being an exact fit doesn’t mar it. Russ Tamblyn is wonderful as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Side note: Russ has a famous daughter, one Amber Tamblyn – she starred in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. George Chakiris won an Oscar for his performance as Bernardo, Maria’s Puerto Rican brother and the leader of the Sharks. Finally, Rita Moreno won on Oscar for her role as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante.

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Just look at that color! 

The Romance

True, Maria and Tony only know each other for about five minutes before deciding that their love is FOREVER, but I personally can’t help but swoon. The songs help…

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Aw, first love and all that!

The Songs

The music, to me, is still the best part of West Side Story. The songs are catchy and sweeping and meaningful. Besides Ragtime, West Side Story is my favorite musical – Somewhere, I feel Pretty, Tonight, Maria…THEY’RE ALL AMAZING.

Shout Out to Marni Nixon who just passed away. She was the singing voice for Natalie Wood in the film. She also sung for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Debra Kerr in The King and I. The video below illustrates Natalie’s voice versus Marni’s. Natalie wasn’t bad, but Marni was incredible!

My FAVORITE Song:

The Message

During the panel, Walter Mirisch was asked about what he’s most proud of with the film. This was his brilliant response:

“I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity to say something about racial relations in America and to say it in a way that would bring audiences in to see it, and perhaps benefit from the lesson of West Side Story. As you see it now, and connect it with what is happening every week now, it is more topical I think, even than it was at that time. My efforts in this direction also included my film In The Heat Of The Night, which I hoped would also reach people with the necessity for the races to come together and stop this senseless warfare. It is discouraging that this lesson still not has been learned and I hope others will continue to fight that battle.” – Walter Mirisch, Producer

 Watching the film in a theater, I found that certain lines had a new connotation. For instance, when Lieutenant Schrank, breaks up the Jets and the Sharks’ war council. He tells Bernardo and the Sharks to get out and says, “Oh, I know. It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What’ve you got?” The audience audibly gasped when he said that, no doubt thinking of recent events and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

I got a badge

When Anita goes to give Tony a message at Doc’s store and is harassed, the audience also responded, disgusted.

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One of the most powerful scenes in the film.
In these past few months of crazy violence and the horrific Orlando shooting, West Side Story is more relevant than its ever been. The film’s true message is tolerance and unfortunately, that’s a lesson that still desperately needs to be taught today.
You can sub in any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation…and the story still works. To me, that’s the mark of a true classic film. Yes, it’s rooted in the time it was made, of course. But, young people can still watch the movie today and relate and that’s pretty special.
The film’s last scene always gets me, especially Natalie Wood’s performance. I can’t NOT cry. 😭
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An illustration of how destructive hate is…
What I Learned from the Panel
  • George Chikiras (aka Bernardo) actually played Riff originally in the musical’s London production. For the film, he auditioned for both, but they felt he was more right for Bernardo.
  • Similarly, Russ Tamblyn (aka Riff) originally auditioned for Tony. It was down to Richard Beymer and himself for the part. When Beymer got it, they offered Russ the role of Riff.
  • Maria  Jimenez Henley (one of the dancers) gave the audience an amazing treat when she told her story. She was a young dancer, just 17, somehow got in to audition for West Side Story. After months of auditions, she got the part. That night, her appendix burst and she was rushed into surgery. Her mom told her she needed time to recover, but Maria knew that if she lost this opportunity, she would regret it. So, that Monday, she went to the first rehearsal and danced so hard that at the end of the day, she noticed blood on the floor. She had ripped all her stitches. They let her stay in it and she said it was the biggest blessing for her – she grew up with her West Side family, went through marriages, divorces, kids, death, all of it. She also told the audience never to give up on your dreams or think you can’t accomplish something. It’s fair to say everyone was moved by her story.
  • Jerome Robbins, the film’s choreographer, wanted to shoot the film completely on a stage. Theater was his medium and that’s where he felt most comfortable. However, Mirisch knew that the film would have more impact if it was shot on real streets. So, he told Jerome that if he wasn’t satisfied with the way the scenes turned out, they would pay to go back and shoot them on a stage. Mirisch added – little did Jerome know, they didn’t have the money for that!

I’ve loved this movie since I was a child. It is a true example of what film can do and its messages are just as relevant today as they ever were. If you’ve never seen it, I highly urge you to give it a try. I swear, you won’t be disappointed. Seriously, if you are disappointed…take it up with me!  Ha.

Vintage trailer below:

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If only gangs were like this, just snapping their fingers, singing a song…

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Why ‘West Side Story’ is Still Relevant

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