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West Side Story

It is natural that the most prolific screenwriter in movie history should have a couple of Oscar winners to his name. And sure, he did die 311 years before the first Oscar ceremony, but his work is still so influential that as of his 443rd birthday today, imdb lists 677 movies to William Shakespeareís name. And that doesnít even include The Lion King, which is rather blatantly a version of Hamlet. Twice the Academy has given its biggest prize to the works of the man who coined the phrase "I am the man." The most recent was 1961ís West Side Story, which combines one of my favorite things, the works of William Shakespeare, with one of my least favorite things, crappy 60ís musicals. So this ought to be interesting.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a large city with a crime problem knows that inner-city gangs spend most of their time engaging in well choreographed dance routines on local playgrounds. Americaís gang problem has many law-abiding citizens afraid to walk the streets at night, not knowing when they might run into a group of youngsters snapping their fingers in unison or jumping and twirling in mid air. In this version of Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets are Puerto Rico gangsters named Sharks, and the Montagues are white gangsters named Jets. Romeo and Juliet themselves are a soda jerk named Tony and a dressmakerís apprentice named Maria. Some of the changes are major downgrades. Instead of the "Two houses, both alike in dignity" prologue, we get an almost silent montage of aerial shots of New York. There is no Rosaline, who Romeo was in love with when the play began, though she did not love him. Remember, Romeo crashes the party where he meets Juliet because he hears that Rosaline will be there. With no unrequited love in the picture, West Side Story needs another reason to get the Jets to the school dance where the two star-crossed lovers meet. They come up with the leader of the Jets, Riff, in the Mercutio role, wanting to go to a high school dance knowing the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, in the Tybalt role, would be there so the Jets could challenge the Sharks to a fight.

In the dance scene we get another major downgrade. Where Romeo and Juliet exchange lines of dialogue that are so romantic they ought to replace traditional wedding vows, Tony and Maria dance with each other while everyone else dances in slow motion and out of focus. Thatís it. To make matters worse the uninspiring fire escape scene fills in for the brilliant balcony scene. When the rumble finally occurs, Bernardo and Riff die rather uninspiring deathís. When Mercutio dies he is at his funniest, calling for "a plague on both your houses" and telling Romeo "ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." What do Riff and Bernardo get? Nothing. Riff is stabbed and falls silently, then Tony stabs Bernardo, then they all hear sirens and the living run away while Tony plays a modern dance version of hide and seek with a spotlight.

They change the ending too. If you recall, in the play Juliet fakes her death with the help of Friar Lawrence, but the message that itís a hoax never reaches Romeo, who kills himself in the Capulet tomb as she is waking up. She wakes up, sees this, and kills herself. Then the Prince admonishes both families, blaming them for the loss of their kids. For Tony and Maria, itís different. Maria dispatches her friend to give Tony a message. The other Jets suspect she is there to shoot Tony, so they molest her, which gets her so mad she tells them another Shark named Chino found out about the relationship and shot Maria. Tony is so enraged by this he calls out Chino to shoot him too. While running across the playground he sees Maria alive, and when they embrace, Chino finally finds him and shoots him. Then Maria, though contemplating suicide, doesnít go through with it, instead filling in for the Prince and delivering the admonishment to the two gangs.

There are certain rules to tragedy and this one follows all the rules. In tragedy a character who comes from power (Romeo and Juliet are the eldest children of the two richest men in town). The tragic hero then must fall from power and ultimately die due to the tragic flaw, the character trait that defines the character, yet being true to this trait leads to death. For Romeo and Juliet the tragic flaw is their love for each other. For Tony and Maria, the tragic flaw leads to only the death of one of them. I will agree that this can fall into the category of tragedy under the Americanized understanding of it. With democratization, you no longer have to be great and powerful to have a tragic fall. These two crazy kids certainly have no power and influence, but they certainly have a tragic flaw, and a fall. Well, one of them does. It kind of pisses me off that Maria lives. Juliet dies! Juliet is supposed to die! The story doesnít have the impact itís supposed to if she doesnít die.

In all musicals you are supposed to pay more attention to the music than the plot. Here the music is an eclectic mix of show tunes, which you have to be an 80 year old with no musical taste to enjoy, and avant garde jazz, which can only be enjoyed with liberal amounts of heroin. "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" are both good tunes, which moments of levity that Shakespeare would have liked, but when you pepper in Leonard Bernstein trying to do his best Bird Parker impersonation the whole thing kind of falls flat. Also if youíre going to have a fight in a movie, actually make it somewhat believable, not some modern dance involving guys jumping on each other and rolling around.

West Side Story has ambition in trying to retell the greatest love story the world has ever known, and it fails. A few years later there was the incomparable Zeffirelli version and more recently weíve had Baz Lurmannís 1996 version. Both were far better than this. Other nominees that year included The Guns of Navaronne and The Hustler. I would have picked The Hustler out of that group, due to the superb acting of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Not nominated that year was one of my favorite movies of all time, Breakfast at Tifannyís, which won only a couple Oscars in the music categories and got Audrey Hepburn a best actress nomination, which she somehow lost to Sophia Loren. West Side Story wouldnít even make it into my top three for that year. Breakfast at Tiffanyís is the best, with The Hustler a close second. But Oscar has a hard on for the musical, and it wasnít the first time, or the last, that they would give the big prize to a musical, shafting a much better film.


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