Ten Reasons to Watch 'West Side Story'

Do you ever wish street fights could be made more entertaining with the addition of choreography? Then KCET has good news: This Sunday night's feature film is the 1961 musical West Side Story, in which gang members pirouette through Manhattan, in which Natalie Wood is a passable Puerto Rican and in which Broadway flourishes eventually give way to some surprisingly real emotions. In case it's not tempting enough to watch the 1961 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, here are ten more reasons to tune in.

New York as it was. I'm not saying that West Side Story offers anything close to an accurate depiction of Manhattan in late '50s. However, it does offer a glimpse of New York City neighborhoods that no longer exist. Director Robert Wise filmed in real-life locations whose demolition were stayed by the city until after filming had completed. It's perhaps appropriate that Lincoln Center stands today where West Side Story was filmed.

The songs. It's no wonder that the film's soundtrack eclipsed all previous sales records. Even if you don't usually go for musicals, the West Side Story songs work their magic on you. Fans have their favorites, I'm sure, but I have to hand it to "America." (The goods begin at 2:18.)

If America ever decides to rethink its national anthem, West Side Story's "America" gets my vote.

Elvis left the building. Allegedly, the King himself was approached to play Tony. Presley's agent advised him that the role was wrong for him, and the male lead was instead played by Richard Beymer.

Natalie Wood. A star in her day and a legend since her untimely death, Wood was not among the many nominated for an Oscar for West Side Story. Furthermore, it must be said that she doesn't do her own singing. But make no mistake: She's fascinating to watch as Maria, the Juliet figure in this twist on Shakespeare's tragedy. Over the course of the film, Maria transforms from an "I Feel Pretty"-chirping songbird to a knife-wielding fury, and Wood makes you believe Maria's righteous anger.

Marni Nixon. Who? An underrated figure whose contributions to the success of West Side Story often go unheralded, the opera-trained Nixon was hired to supply the singing voice of Maria -- unbeknownst to Wood at the time the movie was filmed. Nixon would later do the same for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Wood (again) in Gypsy and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. In fact, Nixon didn't get to appear on screen until The Sound of Music, but her contributions to Hollywood have been appreciated by those in the know for decades.

Russ Tamblyn. Ably playing Riff, one of the founders of the Jets, is an actor who went on to lead one of the more eclectic careers in Hollywood. A child actor who acted opposite Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor in the original Father of the Bride, Tamblyn went on to fill odd job after odd job in Hollywood, from choreographing Jailhouse Rock in 1957 to running from ghosts in the original The House on Haunted Hill. He may be best known today for playing Laura Palmer's less-than-effective psychiatrist on Twin Peaks. He's also the father of House actress Amber Tamblyn.

Rita Moreno. For the second time since I began reviewing KCET's movie of the week, you have the chance to watch a special sort of actor in action: an EGOTer. Like Helen Hayes in Anastasia a few weeks back, Moreno, who played West Side Story's Anita and won an Oscar for the performance, has also won an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. In fact, Hayes was the second person to do so, while Moreno was the third.

Messrs. Director. What's so historic about the Best Director Oscar that this film won? Well, Robert Wise had not directed a musical before, so the dance numbers were directed by Jerome Robbins. The plan paid off, and the "acting" scenes transition seamlessly into the choreographed ones. In the end, both Wise and Robbins won the Oscar for Best Director, and this wouldn't happen again for 46 years, when Joel and Ethan Cohen won for No Country for Old Men.

Opening titles by Saul Bass. Maybe I'm the only one who geeks out to cleverly designed film titles, but I gave famed credits designer Saul Bass a shout-out in my write-up for Ocean's 11, and his work on the credits for this film are every bit as aesthetically impressive.

Even more than looking snappy, they perfectly capture the film's essence: high spirits in a gritty urban environment.

Anybodys? Anybodys? Film buffs and close readers alike could have a field day with Anybodys, a rather progressive character for a mid-century work. She's the tomboy and wannabe member of the Jets, whose androgynous nature keeps her outside the action of the plot but nonetheless important to the sequence of events. Also, she looks like a hard-knock real-life Peppermint Patty. Make your own theories about why such a character might be written into the plot -- and why her name might be "Anybodys."


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