9. West Side Story

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Movie: West Side Story

Release Date: October 18, 1961

Director: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins.

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn.

Tag Lines: “Watch this shot now. Hey. Shoot, man. Go. Hey, yeah.”

“Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger!”

“The Screen Achieves One of the Great Entertainments in the History of Motion Pictures.”

Relevance: ‘The Sound of Music’ was my mother’s favorite movie of all time (see 64. The Sound of Music). As a fan of Broadway, musicals in particular, she shared that love with her children by listening to many of her vinyl soundtracks while she cooked, cleaned or bopped around the house. Through osmosis, I acquired a taste for them at a very young age. ‘The Sound of Music,’ both the Broadway and the movie soundtrack, were ones I could sing along to by the age of ten. If my mother had a second favorite movie, it would have been ‘West Side Story.’ That soundtrack however was not learned by me until much later.

I vaguely remember seeing bits and pieces of ‘West Side Story’ as a young child when it played on television. I was mildly amused by some of the music, but my attention to it was not as precise as when I watched ‘The Sound of Music.’ At that young age, I was probably drawn more to the young kids of the Von Trapp family than the whistling and snapping of the Jets and Sharks. However, my mother loved the film and was a huge fan of its lead actress, Natalie Wood. When it was on television, it was definitely playing in our house. I remember how upset she was in 1981 when Ms. Wood died tragically. I also recall a certain joke I learned at school that did not at all amuse her. What kind of wood doesn’t float? Natalie Wood. It did make my dad chuckle a bit though.

It wasn’t until the age of seventeen at the end of my Junior year in High School did I start to gather any personal interest in ‘West Side Story.’ My high school had announced that was the musical they would be putting on that following Fall, my senior year. Up until that time, I had only played in the orchestra pit for our school musicals. I always wanted to perform on stage but quite frankly, didn’t have enough balls to take that leap from in front of the stage to on the stage. This was going to be my last chance, so before leaving for summer break, I went to the director to get all of the information. She gave me some scenes as well as some music to study over the summer and sent me on my way. The next thing on my list was to finally sit down and watch the movie from beginning to end.

So during the summer of 1988, that is exactly what I did. My mom did not own the VHS of ‘West Side Story,’ but as soon as she found out that I was auditioning for the musical, went out and purchased it. One night, her, my dad and me sat down to watch the dramatic musical. Now at a much more mature age (relatively speaking of course) and with ulterior motives, I paid very close attention to every detail of the film. I was fascinated by the dancing, the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story as well as the songs. After watching it, my mom asked me what role I wanted to play. Without hesitation I said, “Tony.” The rest of that summer I watched and re-watched the movie as well as went out to buy the soundtrack on cassette. “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” could be heard blaring from my room constantly. I was determined to get that lead.

My determination paid off and on December first, second and third of 1988, I played the role of Tony for three sold out nights in my high school auditorium. It wasn’t the greatest of productions, but I had an absolute blast and was officially bitten by the theater bug. I loved playing that role and loved the songs and story that I got to help bring to life for three performances. My mom and dad were in the front row every single night cheering me on. Other immediate family members came to at least one of the performances joining in on the praise. I only recall one bad review which was from my maternal grandmother. Basically she said did not like seeing her grandson die on stage. That was a bad review I could live with.

My love for ‘West Side Story,’ both the play and movie, did not die after high school. If anything it only grew more and more strong. It’s definitely one of my favorite shows of all time and I was lucky enough to see a production of the revival a few years ago. Seeing that Jerome Robbins choreography on stage was absolutely exhilarating. The movie has been watched hundreds if not thousands of times. I own the Special Edition Collector’s Set that includes the DVD, Soundtrack as well as the script and other goodies. It is a collection that I cherish just as much as the memorabilia I still have from my high school production. ‘West Side Story’ is more than just a film to me, it is a special part of my life and I will always hold it very close to my heart.

Today’s Thoughts: “All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!”

Watching any movie with my husband is a treat. You get a lot of wild critiques, comments and thoughts about the movie as it plays as well as some very random interjections. I don’t call him “Annie Wilkes” for nothing. Luckily (or unluckily) I was able to watch ‘West Side Story’ with him today. “What actress played the lesbian?” “They split twenty-seven pairs of pants filming the movie.” “They only met a few hours ago and they are already talking marriage.” Those were just a few of today’s comments. There was also the following: “He is such a fucking asshole. I hope he rots in jail.” Sometimes his comments aren’t about the movie and more about what he is reading on his phone. That particular statement was Trump related.

Despite my husband, I thoroughly enjoyed watching ‘West Side Story’ again today. At almost sixty years old it is still a beautiful movie. The score and songs are of course phenomenal and it is so pretty (pun intended) to watch. It is always the dancing though that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. It is breathtaking, iconic and simply the best choreography ever to be captured on film. I could watch it over and over again. The cast is equally effective and the story is as heartbreaking as ever. No matter how many times I watch the movie, I need to reach for a Kleenex. Today was no exception.

‘West Side Story’ is as classic as they come as every aspect of the film is flawlessly executed. It is one of my favorite musical movies of all time (there are still two more from that genre yet to appear on my list of most influential movies of all time) and a movie that I will continue to watch for many, many years.

Awards: Academy Award for Best Picture (winner), Academy Award for Best Director, Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins (winner), Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, George Chakiris (winner), Academy Award of Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Rita Moreno (winner), Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color, Daniel L. Fapp (winner), Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color, Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin (winner), Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Color, Irene Sharaff (winner), Academy Award for Best Sound, Fred Hynes, Gordon Sawyer (winner), Academy Award for Best Film Editing, Thomas Stanford (winner), Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal (winner), Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Ernest Lehman (nomination), Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical (winner), Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, Rita Moreno (winner), Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, George Chakiris (winner), Golden Globe for Best Director, Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins (nomination), Golden Globe for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical, Richard Beymer (nomination), Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Male, Richard Beymer (nomination), Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Male, George Chakiris (nomination), BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source (nomination), Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins (winner), National Board of Review Award for Top Ten Films (winner), National Film Registry (1997), New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film (winner), New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins (nomination), Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Musical, Ernest Lehman (winner).

Ways to Watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, DVD Availability.

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