Well, I suppose I ought to see this before seeing the current Oscar-nominated remake…
Dispensing with my usual plot recap here, since I would be very surprised indeed if there are those unfamiliar. But just in case: West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet set among 1950s New York street gangs – the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Anglo “Jets” – with songs by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. And overall, it’s good – the script and songs manage to avoid the kind of Musical Theater cheese I tend to dislike, the dancing is worked into the flow of things well and it even works as a Shakespearean adaptation (those usually have their own pitfalls).
So, I liked it. I liked it more than I thought I would. But I didn’t looooove it – at least, I didn’t love the whole thing. And it sounds like I’m not alone – during its original release, it got a lot of popular acclaim, but it also got a lot of lukewarm shrugs; some people loved Jerome Robbins’ dancing but didn’t by Natalie Wood as Maria, some people thought she and Richard Beymer excelled as the two leads but thought the dancing was a little much. Some thought the plot was trite but really loved the music, others thought vice-versa.
There’s one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, though – myself included. And that is that Rita Moreno is spectacular in this. I’m of the age that grew up with Moreno as a regular on the kids’ show Electric Company, and that was my biggest association with her – usually dressed as an silent-film-era director and giving a trademark holler of “HEY YOU GUYYYYYYYYYYS!” This was the first time I’d seen her in anything else – and her role as Anita (Maria’s best friend, and girlfriend to Maria’s brother Bernardo) came as something of a surprise.
Moreno was already a seasoned singer and dancer at the time West Side Story was made, with stage and screen roles under her belt – she had a small role in Singin’ In The Rain and a supporting role in the screen adaptation of The King And I, but had actually begun on Broadway at the age of 13. So while our leads sometimes seem a little challenged by their roles (Natalie Wood in particular doesn’t do much dancing, and I’ve read that that’s…on purpose), Moreno sings, dances, and acts the absolute pants off her role. She even arguably gets a juicier dramatic moment than does Maria – in one scene, Maria enlists her to take a message to Tony, but Anita is stopped by the other Jets, whose taunting and harassments come very near to descending into a gang rape.
It’s an amazing scene, and I’m convinced that this is why Rita Moreno won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Rita Moreno should have gone straight from this to so much more. She even thought that this would finally be an end to the stereotypical “Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns […] humiliating, embarrassing stuff.” But despite a performance like this she got more of the same stereotypical Latina roles, all of which she refused. She stuck to Broadway and TV for a while, and that’s how she ended up on Electric Company instead until Hollywood came to its damn senses.