It won a ton of Oscars (10, which is the record number of wins for a musical) and was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress because of its cultural significance.
This surprised a lot of my friends when I moved to the mainland US, but it’s just not a very big deal at home.
The memorable music, superhuman dancing, and intense emotion make it a great musical. The direction, editing, and production design make it a great movie. Altogether, it’s a near-perfect combination of both formats.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were a more compelling couple in Romeo + Juliet, another well-known adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Maria’s whole personality is pretty, innocent, and in love. Tony is supposed to have this fearsome gang reputation, but he can’t get his friends to do a single thing he says? Plus, I’m sorry to say that their chemistry is lukewarm at best.
They might not be the most exciting couple ever committed to film, but “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” and “One Hand, One Heart” are beautiful songs. Props to Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, who provided the singing voices of Maria and Tony (and Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, who sold the onscreen performance).
Maria and Bernardo are Puerto Rican, but Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, the actors who played them, are not Latinx. Both actors put on broad accents to seem more authentic, which just made the whole thing worse.
Rita Moreno won an Oscar for this role, and rightly so. She earned it just by artfully kicking her purple dress around. And she’s actually Latina!
All of the actors playing Sharks wore the same shade of brown makeup on their skin to make themselves look tan. In 2017, Rita said that she tried to explain to the makeup artist that Puerto Ricans are racially diverse and have a variety of skin tones, but that didn’t go over so well.
It’s a good sign that the movie tries to incorporate themes like immigration, discrimination, gender roles, gentrification, gang violence, and police brutality. It takes place in New York, after all.
This is the part where I say that a film from the ’60s doesn’t entirely hold up when you look at it through a 2020 lens. Sorry, but it is what it is! The Jets’ xenophobia goes unchecked pretty much the entire movie, and the implication is that without Tony’s death, they wouldn’t have had a reason to change. Plus, there’s the whole brownface thing.
Bernardo sings about missing Puerto Rico and being disappointed with how things have gone for them on the US mainland, while Anita reminds him that they have a lot more opportunities there than they did in PR. And I can tell you that they’re both right!
I don’t want to argue with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, but did the Jets really need three songs?? The Sharks only have one! This movie is two and a half hours long, and I feel like they could have combined “Jet Song,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “Cool” into one number. Or two. But three is too many.
The dancers in this movie are full-blown athletes, and watching them leap around the screen is nothing short of thrilling.
The list of things in this movie that are actually Puerto Rican begins and ends with Rita Moreno. Even “America,” the only song by the Puerto Rican characters, could be about anybody who moved to the US if you edited a couple of the lines. Sondheim himself said that he’d “never even met a Puerto Rican,” so it’s not surprising that the film doesn’t convey anything about the culture that it’s supposed to be representing.
Personally, I’d say it’s a toss-up between West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, but both adaptations make you hope that those two kids will make it, even though you already know they won’t.
There are a million reasons why Anita wouldn’t be able to deliver a message to Tony, so this scene really added nothing to the plot. There’s no reason to put her character in such a traumatic position.
Anita, Bernardo, and Riff (Tony’s best friend and leader of the Jets) are such great characters that you might end up caring more about the feud between the Sharks and the Jets than Tony and Maria’s romance. The rumble scene? Gut-wrenching.
Al lof the men are macho criminals, the women are either innocent and pure (Maria) or feisty and sexy (Anita), and everybody throws in words like “querida” and “mi amor” when they talk, even though they’re speaking English. Everyone is the exact same shade of tan. The Jets make jokes about “drowning in tamales,” which, just in case anyone out there is confused, are a Mexican dish.
Look, I’ve made it clear that I found Tony and Maria pretty bland, but sue me, that ending had me choked up. Maria’s speech about how hate has ruined her life is very poignant and as relevant today as it was in 1961.
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