Ten Decades of Oscars: WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

Hello! And welcome to another week of Ten Decades of Oscars, where each week I watch every Best Picture winner from a decade and then choose one to discuss at length. This week was the 1960s, and boy, the size and scale of these films have certainly started to strike upward. BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) and BEN-HUR (1959) were preludes of what was to come with epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and lavish productions like MY FAIR LADY (1964). I had much to contemplate from this decade. It’s fascinating how we go from Alec Guinness in brownface in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to the first winning film to address racism head-on five years later with IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). And it was difficult to pass up this opportunity to schmooze about one of my favourite winners, MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a film that, after my first viewing, I immediately watched again.

But this decade has another lavish production—one that boldly flirts with the theme of racism: WEST SIDE STORY (1961). I first watched this at age 15, and though it was quite slow for me then, I still enjoyed it because, you know, the homosexuality. Then I gave it a re-watch at 18 and enjoyed it more. This is my third watch, nearly fourteen years later, and I’m smitten because I have so much more context to appreciate it—newest of which, watching all the musical winners that have come before WEST SIDE STORY. It’s not historical fawning when musical experts say that lyricist Stephen Sondheim changed the way songs for musicals are written. Having sat through stilted (pretty, but stilted) fare like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1952) and GIGI (1958), it’s obvious how much his style altered musicals for the better. The songs are written faster, there’s characterization in near every line, and they’re just… god, I have friends much more qualified to ring Sondheim’s bell, but, well, Sondheim’s songs are just more interesting to listen to. The pitter-patter of his lyrics are unlike any songs I’ve heard from before WEST SIDE STORY.

Stephen Sondheim is one of those special artists for me. One who inspires me constantly, who is responsible for a not-small amount of creative work of my own. He said a while back that he now finds WEST SIDE STORY’s lyrics embarrassing, but he’s too late—the songs are already embedded in the western musical lexicon. Many of these were songs I’d already heard before my first watch of the film. Just a byproduct of being raised in western pop culture. But this time around, I was able to give much more appreciation to Leonard Bernstein’s score, which is so much part of the genius of these compositions. Before WEST SIDE STORY, musicals stopped dead for their songs: “Here’s where we kill pace to give you folks a lovely song!” And that’s nice and all, but it wears thin quickly. Before WEST SIDE STORY, the songs were more focused on melody than orchestral composition. Now? Lyrics inform characterization and advance the plot. Most of Tony and Maria’s connection is expressed through song, and it’s still effective because the songs are conveying how they feel. We’re introduced to the Jets via their opening number, and it’s there we learn their foundational tenets for gang loyalty and scrappy will to fight for what’s theirs. Rather than outright vilifying the Puerto Rican Sharks, we’re shown their plight via songs like “America”—still my favourite of the bunch. We’re informed through song. The music is part of the plot and no longer a side-breather.

But Bernstein’s score is absolutely nuts. No musical I’ve seen sounded like this before 1961. The frantic and bombastic compositions lend a huge part to the inedible quality of the songs. The “Mambo!” dance sequence in the gym, for instance, relies entirely on him to conduct the frenzied choreography. It’s loud and wants your attention, something musical scores are often too timid to do. He also plays with themes a lot. Many themes from songs we haven’t even heard yet are peppered throughout the film at the right moments because they’re indicative of a specific character or feeling. This is how the greats of our generation like John Williams would go on to compose film scores—themes based on emotion and character. It makes Bernstein’s work on WEST SIDE STORY ahead of its time.

But I also got a fresh chance to appreciate the filmic quality of WEST SIDE STORY this time around. From the opening bird’s eye view shots of the city, which finally made the stunning impact on me they were always meant to—they’re gorgeous and impressive for their time, and they foreshadow some of the unique camerawork that would follow in the film. The transitional effects and the blurred edges to enhance and focus on one subject are other aspects of the film I didn’t fully notice on my prior viewings. The film is smart. It’s smartly made. The whole thing could’ve been filled on the studio backlot or on location—I don’t know and I don’t care; from the campy dance-fighting to the prolonged choreography, WEST SIDE STORY imbues this half-fantasy trait, where the apartment windows in the background look awfully too flat but the sunset behind the building feels too real not to be. It works in favour of a film that wants us to take a brutal feud between rival gangs seriously while everybody is prancing about.

Musicals hit their peak in this decade. Four of the Best Picture winners from the 60s were musicals, and another wouldn’t win after OLIVER (1968) until 2002’s CHICAGO (and none have won since—though LA LA LAND (2016) got damn close, eh?) Of those four winners from this decade, none kick so high as WEST SIDE STORY. The rest are still fairly indicative of the genre that came before 1961. The reliance on grand production over filmmaking style hindered, I think, the genre irreparably. Of course, the ensuing cynicism of the 70s most likely takes a bigger role in the end of the cinematic musical, but the genre has seen some resurgence the past couple decades. It may never dominate again, especially now when studios are only interested in the sure-return of blockbusters, but there’s something to be said about musicals under the guidance of talented directors. I think I’m looking forward to Spielberg’s remake of WEST SIDE STORY later this year. I’m skeptical; throughout much of my re-watch, I had to wonder why Spielberg thought this material could be improved upon. But I trust his screenwriting collaborator Tony Kushner, who penned the film that should’ve won top prize in 2012—LINCOLN—and the themes of WEST SIDE STORY are, sadly, more relevant than ever. With the mounting pressure for Puerto Rico’s statehood, I can see why Spielberg might be drawn to a more modern approach to the material. We’ll see!

Well, that’s enough gushing for now. Join me next week when we enter a period of war, political instability, and also movie characters can drop f-bombs whenever they want. The contestants are:


WEST SIDE STORY is available on Blu-ray and for digital purchase on Apple TV and Google Play.

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