Summer Under the Stars: West Side Story (1961)

TCM’s star of the day is Rita Moreno, and my film pick for the actress is West Side Story, which airs today at 10:00 P.M. (EST).

In this modern-day, musical retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a gang of white American teenagers, the Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), competes with a rival gang of immigrated Puerto Ricans, the Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), to own the neighborhood turf in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But the ongoing battle between the gangs becomes complicated when Riff’s best friend, Tony (Richard Beymer), and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), fall in love after meeting at a dance.

West Side Story is a film that balances between grand musical moments and heightened tragedy while grounding it all in a believable, contemporary scenario. In adapting the hit 1957 Broadway musical to the screen, Robert Wise was chosen to direct for his previous work on films set in urban New York. Since he didn’t have any musical experience at that point, he agreed to bring Jerome Robbins, who had directed and choreographed the original stage version, onto the project to direct the dance sequences. Though Robbins was later dismissed in the middle of production, Wise still consulted with him on ideas for the film and incorporated many of his suggestions. Because of that, Wise thought Robbins deserved co-directing credit for his contribution to the film. It proved to be a successful collaboration, as West Side Story became the top-grossing film of 1961 and went on to win ten of its eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for both Wise and Robbins, which marked the first time that award was shared.

It wasn’t just the talent behind the scenes that helped West Side Story soar to great success; much of it was also due to the talent in front of the camera. Several cast members from the original Broadway and West End productions were cast in the film, though most of them ended up playing different roles from the ones they performed on stage. The most famous changeover was George Chakiris, who played Riff in the West End production but went on to play Bernardo in an Oscar-winning performance. The role of Riff instead went to Russ Tamblyn, who had originally auditioned for the male lead role. Many other names were up for consideration for the musical’s star-crossed lovers, including Elvis Presley and Warren Beatty, and Audrey Hepburn and Jill St. John. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood ultimately won the roles of Tony and Maria, respectively, though both actors had to have their singing dubbed over.

While West Side Story boasts an exceptional cast, the movie’s stand-out performer is Rita Moreno as Anita, who famously won an Oscar for her work here, which remains one of my favorite performances ever. Before she was cast in what became her most iconic role, she played small parts in films throughout the 1950s, including Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I. As Anita, Moreno got the chance to display her full talent, showing her range in both lighter, comedic moments and more dramatic scenes. Whether dancing at the gym or in the “America” number or relying on just facial expressions to get across Anita’s emotions in a given scene, there was no denying how skilled a performer she was. But despite a star-making turn in West Side Story, Moreno was still being offered stereotypical roles that didn’t come close to matching her talent, so the actress ended up exiling herself from Hollywood for a few years. Fortunately, she still had great work and numerous accolades ahead of her, and in the 1970s, she won a Grammy, a Tony, and two Emmys, becoming the third person to become an EGOT winner and the first Hispanic person with the distinction. And just this year, Moreno earned a Peabody Award and is now the third person to achieve PEGOT status. Now 87 years old, I’m happy to see Moreno is still working steadily in television and film, and she’s just as vibrant now as she was as Anita nearly 60 years later. Her career will soon come a bit full-circle, as she’s executive producing and has a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, due to come out at the end of next year.

I wrote this as a part of the 2019 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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