Monday, October 14, 2019

when bad things happen to good movies

It's heartening to sense that John Huston's 1982 film version of the Broadway musical "Annie" is yet another hastily dismissed, misunderstood title that has been - at long last - "rediscovered" and appreciated for the terrific movie musical that it is.  Of course, it took more than 30 years and two inferior remakes to convince its detractors of its worthiness - a watered-down 1999 TV version and a grotesquely updated 2014 remake.

For the past three decades, people who don't "get" movie musicals - including professional critics whom one would think would know better (well, think again) -  have indulged in snarky derision and bad jokes, exhibiting their abject cluelessness.  And, for me, few things are as amusing as a dull white middle-aged male movie critic trying to be funny.

"Annie" joins a select list of movies initially written off, chief among them Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) which, in its day, was harshly reviewed, to put it mildly.  So much (again) for critics and their educated tastes.
  Among the major film achievements that have been dismissed and derided are Hitchcock's "Marnie," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong" and "Monsieur Verdoux," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Howard Hawks' "Monkey Business," Elaine May's "Ishtar," Robert Altman's "Popeye," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Darren Aronofsky’s "mother!," Robert Wise's "Star!," Mike Nichols' "Day of the Dolphin," Steven Spielberg's "1941" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra."
All really good films. "Folly or misunderstood masterpieces?," BAM asked in its promotion for its 2015 series, ”Turkeys for Thanksgiving”

Richard Brody, arguably the best movie critic writing today (although his official title is actually movie editor at The New Yorker), covered the BAM series on his New Yorker blog in a piece titled "These So-Called Bad Movies Prove the Urgency of Film Criticism," an essay you can read here.

But back to "Annie." It's popularity as a "family-friendly" Broadway show (when there were precious few back in those days) is a given.  Columbia Pictures sensed that it could be transferred rather seamlessly to the big screen and spent a then-record $9.5-million for the movie rights.

Producing chores were handed to Ray Stark, who had successfully overseen "Funny Girl" for Columbia years earlier, and Stark was given complete creative control to hire anyone he desired.  He could have picked among the usual suspects to direct this valuable property but he (wisely) settled on Huston, a decidedly non-musical name but a real filmmaker.

This was a shrewd trend in the late 1970s and early '80s which answered the question, "How do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, immediately declare every new movie musical 'an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster'?"

Answer: You bring in the Big Guns - Sidney Lumet to direct "The Wiz," Milos Foreman to film "Hair" and Sir Richard Attenborough to take "A Chorus Line" from stage to screen.  Surely, critics would approve, right?

Wrong.  The critics nitpicked, even though both Huston and Foreman hit all the right notes, with Huston delivering a throwback. an old-fashioned movie musical, and Foreman helming the definitive version of "Hair."

In the case of Huston, it was the perfect mating of filmmaker and material.  The director seemed to relate to his tough-willed little title character and, in nine-year-old Aileen Quinn, he found an effortlessly spunky kid who could have stepped out of a '30s Warners street film.  And Quinn handily nailed the role.

Huston's other smart move was to bring in the great veteran Broadway choreographer Joe Layton to oversee all of his film's musical numbers and the then-new British choreographer Arlene Philips to stage all the dances.

Philips' exuberant, acrobatic staging of the film's "It's a Hard-Knock Life" number is a jaw-dropping knockout - hands-down. It gets better with each viewing, equalled by her breezy staging of Ann Reinking's "We Got Annie."

Which brings us to Huston's shrewd casting - Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder and Edward Hermann and Lois De Banzie (spot-on and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt) from Broadway; Albert Finney from international cinema; Tim Curry from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and of course, Carol Burnett from, well, every medium imaginable.

That said, here are a few "Annie" factoids that add to the fascination of this terrific film:

Albert Finney's line-readings for Daddy Warbucks.  Stark reportedly joked that Huston himself would be the perfect Warbucks.  That gave Huston and Finney an idea: Finney appropriated Huston's vocal intonations for his performance. His line readings sound exactly like Huston speaking.

John Huston's own "cameo" in the film.  The sonorous voice of the actor on the radio soap opera who seems to be talking directly to Carol Burnett (just prior to the "Little Girls" number) is ... Huston's.

Carol Burnett's performance.  When the actress asked her director for a tip on how to perform Miss Hannigan, Huston made it simple: "Play it soused."  Burnett's performance is one long (witty) drunk scene.

Carol Burnett and Dorothy Loudon.  When Carol Burnett exited as a regular on "The Garry Moore Show" to do the 1964 Broadway musical "Fade In, Fade Out," she was replaced by Dorothy Loudon.  Loudon would go on to create the role of Miss Hannigan in "Annie" on Broadway and Burnett would replace her in the film.  A nifty, circuitous happenstance.

The casting of Rooster Hannigan: Huston had his heart set on his "almost" son-in-law Jack Nicholson for a smallish role in "Annie" - as Miss Hannigan's incorrigible brother, Rooster.  (Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston at the time.)  That would have been a hoot.  Perfect casting.  But even though it would have been a quick shoot for Nicholson, he had a scheduling conflict and Huston moved on and subsequently nabbed Tim Curry for the role.  And Curry also proved to be a perfect Rooster Hannigan - wildly theatrical, juicily evil, in the role.

Prior to a recent TCM screening of "Annie," a Turner host erroneously reported that Nicholson was Huston's choice to play Warbucks. This misinformation (from the “Annie” page on Turner's website) could have been easily fact-checked: The Nicholson-Rooster connection was widely reported prior to production. No, Albert Finney was Huston's sole choice to play Warbucks, which seemed curious at the time (even though Finney had previously sung on-screen in 1970's "Scrooge"), but it worked. Finney is just witty enough as Warbucks and his eyes expose his affection for Annie.

And Nicholson also previously sung on screen., but his rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's "Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?" was cut from Vincente Minnelli's 1970 film musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."  (Nicholson's song was included among other deleted movie musical numbers on an album released by Out Take Records.)

As for Huston and Finney, two years late,r they would collaborate again but on a film the polar opposite of "Annie" - "Under the Volcano," based on the Malcolm Lowry novel.

The return of two "Annie" characters from the strip:  Huston reinstated the characters of Punjab (Holder) and Asp (Roger Minami) for his film version  Neither character is in the stage musical. Which brings me to Carol Sobieski who adapted "Annie" for the screen, managing to honor not only Thomas Meehan's stage script but also the original Harold Gray cartoon strip.  Sobieski, who died in 1990 at age 51, had previously worked for Stark, writing the screenplay for the fine 1978 Walter Matthau film, "Casey's Shadow." Two of her screenplays were filmed after she died - Jon Avnet's hugely popular "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), based on the Fannie Flagg book, and John Cusack's "Money for Nothing" (1993).

The original "Easy Street" number: Two versions of this memorable number were filmed.  Philips originally staged it along the lines of "Who Will Buy?" from Sir Carol Reed's 1968 version of "Oliver!" (choreographed by Onna White), on an outdoor set and backup dancers (pictured directly below). But producer Stark reportedly wasn't entirely happy with the finished product and asked that the song be re-filmed - this time, in an indoor setting with a more intimate staging and with only Curry, Burnett and Peters performing (also pictured below).

I speculate the number also had to be re-recorded to accommodate the revised staging.

All of this was documented by Andrew J. Kuehn in his promotional documentary, "Lights, Camera, Annie!", which was televised by ABC and broadcast prior to the film's release. Kuehn's film is a must-see for any movie-musical aficionado who has ever fantasized about going behind-the-scenes and on set during the making of a film musical. It helps to have an appreciation of Huston's film, of course, but that's not a prerequisite.

This is fly-on-the-wall fun. Period.

There is ample footage of Huston, Layton, Stark and Phillips discussing the reinvention of the number as something smaller, with a few shots of "Easy Street" as it was originally conceived. Kuehn's work, narrated by Gene McGarr and produced by Jim Washburn, goes beyond the promotional documentary genre and sneakily slips us into meetings and on-set discussions, giving us an insider's insight into the making of a musical.

There are also on-set interviews with Finney, Burnett, Quinn, Peters, Curry, Reinking and Holder and an extended sequence devoted to the auditions for the title role among scores of little girls. The casting director got the job done expeditiously by going up and down aisles of little girls, having each one contribute to a on-going, non-stop version of "Tomorrow."

Each girl picks up where the previous girl left off.

Carol Burnett discussed the filming of the two versions of "Easy Street" when she was a guest on Alec Baldwin's ”Here’s the Thing” podcast on October 10th.

Frankly, I'd love to know why Sony Home Entertainment didn't include Kuehn's documentary or the original "Easy Street" staging on its recent reissue of the "Annie" DVD as bonus features, instead of an updated "rap" version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" by some generic teen group - an ominous inclusion that anticipated Columbia's dubious 2014 remake.

The song score: The stage songs dropped from the movie were "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," "N.Y.C.," "You Make Me Happy," "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long," "Why Should I Change a Thing?," "Something Was Missing" and "A New Deal for Christmas."  New songs added to the film were "We Got Annie," "Dumb Dog"/"Sandy," "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Sign."  All songs, for both the play and the film, were written by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). Charnin has directed seemingly umpteen stage revivals of the show.  It's his baby.

Strouse also wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie" (with Lee Adams doing the lyrics) and I've a hunch that all those dropped "Annie" songs brought back unpleasant memories of when the same studio, namely Columbia, filmed (and unnecessarily truncated) "Bye Bye Birdie" back in 1963.

I can't say I particularly miss the deleted stage songs, but the "We Got Annie" number is wonderful, so wonderful that I'm surprised Strouse and Charnin never incorporated into the subsequent stage revivals of "Annie."

"Live" versus Dubbing: Although most of the songs for "Annie" were pre-recorded, there are areas of the film when the performers sung "live" on set, most notably Carol Burnett's rendition of "Little Girls."  Finney sings a "live" reprise of "Maybe" and the opening portion of "Easy Street" is sung "live" by Curry, Peters and Burnett.  Huston used the show's signature song, "Tomorrow," over the opening credits (in lieu of an overture), sung by Quinn who later in the film sings it "live" (sweetly and with no musical accompaniment) to Hermann and De Banzie. When Finney, Hermann and De Banzie join her in a quick reprise, the song is lip-synced and scored.

The film's one oddity: One of the film's highlights - the "Let's Go to the Movies," shot it the magnificent Radio City Music Hall - is marred when the film stops cold to screen assorted scenes from George Cukor's "Camille" (1936) with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Huh?  My assumption has always been that "Camille" was one of Ray Stark's favorite films - an assumption never confirmed.  I can't think of any other reason for its inclusion. Otherwise, it beats me.  But that one blemish aside, at least we get great shots of the Music Hall's cavernous lobby.  Gorgeous.

And there you have it...  All about "Annie," being screened by Turner Classic Movies at 9:45 p.m. (est) on Tuesday, October 15. Enjoy!

Note in Passing: Here are some observations/gentle reminders by Kevun Barry abot the invaluable Margaret Booth frm an earlier post. Again, enjoy!

Kevin Barry said...I love your intelligent pieces on undervalued movies. It was film editor Margaret Booth's idea to show the capsule version of Camille at the Music Hall. She edited both Camille and Annie. Camille, however, opened at the Capitol and never played the Music Hall, and it is shown in the wrong aspect ratio, a detail that apparently went unnoticed by both Ms. Booth and Mr. Huston. Also, another Loudon/Bunett connection: Dorothy originated the role in Noises Off that Carol recreated on screen.

Joe Baltake said...Kevin! Yes, Margaret Booth, a name that I forgot to mention among those smart hires by Huston. Thanks for the heads-up. (I'm adding Booth's name to my piece pronto!) And thanks also for the info on the Booth/"Camille" connection, as well as the other Loudon/Burnett connection. Finally, yes, the wrong aspect ratio for "Camille" is indeed a worrisome flaw in the film. (I hope that you agree with me that its inclusion in "Annie" does stop the film cold, needlessly.)

Kevin Barry said... Yes, Joe, I totally agree that the Camille sequence brings Annie to a halt. It almost feels like a built in Intermission, like the Dodge City sequence in John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn. It's a very odd directorial choice. 

Joe Baltake said...Kevin- Apt analogy. -J

Kevin Barry said... I dislike the "all-time best lists" produced by the likes of the American Film Institute and Sight and Sound - Singin' in the Rain is the best musical, The Searchers is the best western, etc. Even the tired cliche that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made frustrates me (Well, now it's Vertigo, apparently, and I'm not even sure it's Hitchcock's best work). These lists encourage lazy scholarship and send a message to those less informed that if you see The Searchers there is no need to see any other western. These movies are all great, but the history of the cinema is an embarrassment of riches and putting a select few films on a pedestal limits our vision

Joe Baltake said... Hi Kevin- For some bizarre reason, movie types love putting together gratuitous, pointless lists. Actually, most journalists in general seem to enjoy the process. That's one reason why I stopped renewing my subscription to Entertainment Weekly - I could no longer take the never-ending series of lists. Now, the internet does it ad infinitum. Oy. Yes, it makes those who are easily impressed (and not likely to question the process) very lazy. You and a.n. bring up criticism problems in your posts that lead to one impression - the reluctance of people (including critics) to embrace original thinking. It's easier to be told what to think and not question it. Again, it's the "herd complex."

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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(from top)

~Director John Huston with his film's little girls, including title star Aileen Quinn (to the direct right of Huston) and the later Amanda Peterson (right of Quinn).
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and with Sandy
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Ann Reinking in the "We Got Annie" production number
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Burnett with Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry perform the second, revised version of "Easy Street"
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Huston does his bit
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn shows her stuff
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Lois DeBanzie, Finney, Quinn and Edward Hermann as FDR perform a toned-down version of "Tomorrow"
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn confers with Finney and Huston
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982©

Thursday, June 13, 2019

façade: elizabeth hartman & Inger Stevens

Too soon.

Those two words come to mind whenever my thoughts turn to those stars who died young or relatively young, It's not the usual suspects who haunt me - James Dean, Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

No, I think of Carrie Snodgress, for example. True, she wasn't exactly young when she died of heart failure and liver failure in 2004. She was 57. But in my mind, she was still that interesting young actress who commanded attention in a handful of films 30 years earlier, starting with Jack Smight's "Rabbit, Run" and Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife" in 1970. Her film career as a major player was painfully short.

In that sense, she died young.

Then, there are two heartbreakers who were indeed young when they passed.

Both suicides.
Frail and incredibly touching, Elizabeth Hartman was arguably the most promising film actress of the mid-1960s, appearing in four diverse films in the space of three years, and then she disappeared, popping up in movies and on TV only occasionally until, sadly, she went away completely.

Time moves on and we tend to forget elusive people like Elizabeth Hartman. When screen writer Gill Dennis, who was married to her from 1968 to 1984, died in 2015, Hartman was just a footnote in his obiturary.

Hartman made her film debut in Guy Green's ”A Patch of Blue,” an unusually unpleasant film about a young blind woman (Hartman) who has an almost accidental relationship with a man (Sidney Poitier) who, unknown to her, is black.  Shelley Winters as her cruel mother, Wallace Ford as her cruel grandfather and Elisabeth Fraser as her mother's cruel friend make the film almost unwatchable.  But the role brought Hartman an Oscar nomination as best actress.  At age 22, she was the youngest person in that category at that time to be nominated for an Oscar.

A year later, Hartman was part of Sidney Lumet's impressive ensemble in his film version of Mary McCarthy's ”The Group,”  playing the key role of Priss. At this early point in her film career, Hartman could do anything she desired.  Hollywood wanted her.

But she responded instead to a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola who needed a "name" for his New Wave comedy, "You're a Big Boy Now," although the film also featured the estimable Geraldine Page and Julie Harris (with whom Hartman was something of a kindred spirit) and another newcomer named Karen Black. The role was Barbara Darling, a go-go dancer, a vamp and a sadist.  And Elizabeth Hartman, to her credit, signed on.  It was the only time that Elizabeth Hartman looked glamorous in a film.

And, reportedly, Coppola was forever grateful.

Hartman then went on to do John Frankenheimer's ”The Fixer” in 1968 as part of a British ensemble that included star Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Ian Holm, Hugh Griffith and Georgia Brown. Around this time, Coppola was preparing "The Rain People" and wanted Hartman for the role of Natalie Revenna, a fed-up housewife who runs away from her marriage.  But Hartman, always insecure, wasn't emotionally ready for the role and Coppola had to opt for one of Hartman's co-stars from "The Group," Shirley Knight, who rewarded her director with a brilliant performance.

After taking off for a few years, Hartman returned to the screen for Don Siegel in his Clint Eastwood psychological Western, "The Beguiled" in 1971, which also features Hartman's "Boy" co-star, Geraldine Page.

It would be her last role in an important film.

Her next film, had she made it, would have been even more important - and perhaps crucial to her career and her health.  She was Coppola's first choice for the role of Kay in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."  But, again, life got in the way; Hartman remained insecure and emotionally fraught.  (The director was reportedly so grateful for her participation in "You're a Big Boy Now" that he wanted to reward her with a showcase female role in a big, largely all-male film.) The part of Kay eventually went to Diane Keaton who is the one weak link in "The Godfather," although in Keaton's defense, it's a poorly written role.

Frankly, I'm not sure that even an actress of Hartman's talent and caliber could have made it memorable.

There were a few roles on television after that, very few. In terms of film, the latter part of Hartman's career included only two roles - in the original "Walking Tall" (1973), a red-neck drama starring Joe Don Baker, and, a decade later, as a voice in the animated "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), made by MGM - the studio that produced "A Patch of Blue."

Hartman went full circle, ending up where she had begun.

Before her suicide in 1987, she worked in a museum in Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth Hartman died on June 10th of that year.  She jumped to her death from a fifth story window.  She was 44.

Inger Stevens. Yes, Inger Stevens, whose star - and sweet face - twinkled brightly but briefly from the late 1950s to 1970 when she died at age 35.

She was one of those curious stars whose troubled personal life contrasted sharply with her public persona, which was probably best defined by her role as a plucky Swedish governess opposite William Windom (and the invaluable Cathleen Nesbitt) on the popular TV series, "The Farmer's Daughter," a sitcom with a realistic edge.

Stevens made her film debut in 1957 in the very small Bing Crosby vehicle, "Man on Fire," directed by Ranald MacDougall. She had just turned 20 when she was cast and 22 when it was released, immediately following it with an eclectic collection of titles - Andrew L. Stone's "Cry Terror!" (1958), with James Mason; Anthony Quinn's "The Buccaneer" (1958), with Charlton Heston; MacDougall's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1959) with Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, and an Emmy-nominated role opposite Peter Falk in David Friedkin's "The Price of Tomatoes" (1962), a playlet on Dick Powell's anthology series.

During this period, Stevens reportedly had doomed affairs with most of her leading men, including Crosby, Mason and Quinn.

Like Hartman, the latter part of her career was devoted to television. On TV, she had too many thankless roles. After interrupting her screen work for the small screen, Stevens returned to films in, among others, Gene Kelly's "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), John Guillermin's "House of Cards" (1968) and, opposite Quinn, in Daniel Mann's "A Dream of Kings" (1969), finally a role worthy of her talents. But it was too little too late.

In less than a year, the ultimately enigmatic Inger Stevens was dead - another Hollywood suicide and also a tragic missed opportunity.

Stevens worked on screen for 14 years. Fourteen years. Way too brief. She left us ... too soon.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

(from top) 

~Elizabeth Hartman in a publicity still for "The Group"
~photography: United Artists 1966©

~Carrie Snodgress with Richard Benjamin in a scene from "Diary of a Mad Housewife"
~photography: Universal 1970©

~Hartman with Sidney Poitier in a scene from "A Patch of Blue"
~photography: MGM 1965©

~Hartman as Barbara Darling in "You're a Big Boy Now"
~photography: Seven Arts 1966©

~Hartman doing her go-go dance in "You're a Big Boy Now"
~photography: Seven Arts 1966©

~Hartman with Clint Eastwood in a scene from "The Beguiled"
~photography: Universal 1971©

~Inger Stevens in a publicity shot for the TV series, "The Farmer's Daughter" 
~photography: ABC/Screen Gems Television 1963©

~Stevens with Bing Crosby in "Man on Fire" 
~photography: MGM 1957©

Sunday, June 02, 2019


Ben Mankiewicz was diplomatic, as he always is.

Last night, he screened "West Side Story" as part of TCM's "The Essentials." The film was picked by his charming co-host, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who teased us by saying it is one of her two favorite movies.

"No one wants to see Natalie Wood in brownface, but what do you think of her performance?," Ben asked at the top of the post-screening discussion. "Gorgeous!," a beaming Ava proclaimed.

This was in preamble to a brief conversation about Hollywood's bottom-line decision to cast white performers as people of color because, as Ben summed it up, "We gotta sell this movie." Sixty-eight years ago, MGM cast Ava Gardner as Julie in "Show Boat" when Lena Horne was under contract. Go figure.

But it is Natalie Wood who, since the 1961 release of "West Side Story," remains The Official Poster Child of Misguided Casting, despite the strength and sincerity of her performance in the film.

It's too bad that Mankiewicz's chat with DuVernay was limited to about five minutes because there are other issues about "West Side Story" that have never been considered and could use some scrutiny. First, It's worth noting that a precedent of casting a white actress to play Maria was set by the original 1957 stage production, which starred Carol Lawrence in the role and, frankly, no one noticed and certainly no one cared enough to comment or complain. But, fair or unfair, film is somehow different, largely because of the camera's eye with its uncanny ability to magnify images a thousand times over.

A quick aside... None of the stars of the original Broadway version were considered for the film (just a few of the dancers). Only Michael Callen - billed as Mickey Calin when he created the role of Riff, leader of the Jets, on stage - ended up with a movie contract in 1959. But it was with Columbia Pictures, not United Artists which released WSS. Columbia put Callen in such titles as "Pepe," "The Interns," "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" and "The Victors." It was Russ Tamblyn who was cast as Riff in the movie.
And if Natalie Wood was "miscast" because she was white, then so was George Chakiris who plays her brother Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, in the film. Like Wood, Charkiris is decidedly not Puerto Rican. He is the son of Greek immigrants and also went brownface for the movie. Unlike Wood, however, his casting in the movie has never been questoned. Ironically, Chakiris played the role of Riff in the 1958 London production of the show.

Then there's the close proximity of another major 1961 movie musical at the time. Universal's "Flower Drum Song" was released almost in tandem with "West Side Story" and it is difficult not to notice the difference in casting choices. The leading roles in "Flower Drum Song," produced by Ross Hunter, were cast with Asian actors (both Chinese and Japanese), a truly enlightened move at the time. The original 1958 stage version?

Not so much.

Composer Richard Rodgers, speaking strictly as a Caucasian, had been quoted saying that "what was important was that the actors gave the illusion of being Chinese." He said this because of the difficulty of casting the role of Sammy Fong. Larry Storch played it during the Boston tryout but Larry Blyden took over the role when it opened on Broadway.

Storch and Blyden - two white men.

Hunter and director Henry Koster wisely cast Jack Soo for the movie version. (Soo, who had played another role in the Broadway production, succeeded Blyden as Fong and played Fong in the national touring company of the show.)

If "West Side Story" can be criticized for anything, it's not for the casting of Natalie Wood but rather for the cringe-inducing stereotypical performances that director Robert Wise coaxed out of the actors who play Puerto Ricans in the film, the various performers who were cast as the Sharks and their women, including the film's two Oscar winners, Rita Moreno and Chakiris.

Actually, it's almost cartoon-like, something jarring for a work that has congratulated itself for five decades now for being a "serious musical."

Perhaps, Steven Spielberg, working with scenarist Tony Kushner, will get it right with his planned remake. He's already cast a Latina as Maria.

That said, Mankiewicz' discourse with DuVernay is a good start that will lead, hopefully, to lengthier discussions, especially since so many of the classic musicals on TCM routinely include blackface sequences featuring the likes of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Fred Astaire and Dennis Morgan.

Once enjoyable, they are now something of head-scratchers: "What on earth were they thinking?" Or maybe for other decision-makers - "artists" like Richard Rodgers - only illusion really matters. At one time, at least.
click on photo to enlarge

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

(from top) 

~Natalie Wood performing a dance created for her by Jerome Robbins for the film version of "West Side Story" 
~photography: United Artists 1961©

~TCM host Ben Mankiewicz
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018©

~Filmmaker Ava DuVernay

~Rita Moreno and Wood in the "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love" duet in the film
~photography: United Artists 1961©

~Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence performing the same duet in the stage version 
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1957©

~The cast of the film of "Flower Drum Song" - Jack Soo, Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta
~photography: Universal-International 1961©

~Natalie Wood in a publicity photo announcing her casting in "West Side Story." She's holding a copy of the song score autographed by Leonard Bernstein
~photography: United Artists 1960©