Monday, July 03, 2017

more blasphemy!

Or, "Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"

Today's pick for my newly-founed Hall of the Overrated is, yes, the venereable "West Side Story" (1961) which, as Hollywood legend has put it, was initially directed by stage hand Jerome Robbins exclusively before studio favorite Robert Wise was brought in by the suits and took over.

If you bother to check out the TV listings in your local newspaper, you are probably aware that televised movies get star ratings that are immutable.  They never change - never - even though movies themselves change regularly in relation to our evolving perception of them.

Star ratings often caused trouble with readers when I was a working critic because, at times, I'd change the rating that I appointed to a film. Writing under the pressure of a deadline can make one hasty and, occasionally, a months or two after I reviewed a movie, I'd come to the realization that I had a different opinion of it and would adjust the rating accordingly.

All of this is in preamble to noting that "West Side Story" has been given four stars ever since it went to television. It's automatic. Well, it may have been a four-star movie in the '60s but not anymore. It would be helpful (but time-consuming) if newspapers actually considered giving aging films a second look. Me? I can't watch it anymore. Frankly, it makes me cringe.

Yes, I know, the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score is exquisite and the choreography by Robbins is electric and remains revolutionary.

But that's about it.

The film's problem? Simple. It's the awful script.

Critic Sam Adams put it best a few years ago in his critique of a DVD release of WSS for Philadelphia's long-gone City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win."

Yes, the dialogue.  The expression "daddy-o," invoked frequently in the film, was already dated even before the movie went into production.

I agree also with Sam's assessment of the unfair lambasting of the film's two romantic leads, particularly Richard Beymer as Tony. As concocted by Laurents, Tony is a patently unplayable character. None of the actors I've seen in the role has been very credible. Tony simply makes no sense - a supposed gang member who behaves like a refugee from a seminary.

And speaking of the dialogue, it doesn't help that Beymer is saddled with Laurents' most purple lines, which Lehman misguidedly preserved.

He's not alone. Poor Natalie Wood gets her share of bum dialogue, too. Thanks to the script, particularly the dialogue, the acting in WSS is painful; Wood and Russ Tamblyn are the film's only two convincing performers.

As for the songs, there have been decades of complaints about the fact that the singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed. True. But wait! Everyone's singing voice in the film is dubbed, thanks to associate producer Saul Chaplin. He was noted for wanting "perfect voices only" when it came to musicals. This gets weird in "West Side Story": Tamblyn's singing voice was dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith - so that when Tamblyn sings and Smith sings, it sounds like the same voice.

Why?  Because it is the same voice.

Even Rita Moreno, a trained musical-comedy star, was dubbed in part (by Betty Wand). I'd like to know why exactly? But, unfortunately, Chaplin is no longer around to explain his hang-up. Perhaps Rita can enlighten.
Speaking of the music for WSS, when Stephen Sondheim appeared on "Inside the Actors Studio" on September 11th, 1994, host James Lipton brought up Sondheim's reservations about his lyrics for the show.

Lipton: "I've heard you disparage your lyrics for 'West Side Story,' but I would give a great deal to have written, 'Oh, moon, grow bright and makes this endless day endless night.'"

Sondheim: "It's fine until you remember that it's sung by an adolescent in a gang."


On the plus side, Boris Leven's production design is a masterwork, as are the credits by Saul Bass who also served as visual consultant. Thanks to their contributions, the film remains as arty today as it was back in 1961.

I fear that, these days, "West Side Story" is effective only in the artificial setting of a legitimate theater. It has to remain stagebound to work.

It can't withstand the close-up scrutiny of the merciless camera. 

Note in Passing: About dubbing, I have nothing against it, but personally, I get a kick when a genuine movie star, one not known as a vocalist, sings in a film. I can overlook the occasional bad note. I love movie musicals but I'm no purist. Yesterday, I referred to Audrey Hepburn's rendition of "Moon River" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which is so much better than the perfect but soulless voice (of Marni Nixon) that comes out of her mouth in "My Fair Lady." Hepburn, unlike a lot of stars, had a particularly distinctive speaking voice. You can't change it for a musical because you have a need for perfection. It can potentially distort an overall performance. Luckily, Audrey Hepburn was enough of a pro - a true world-class actress - to overcome the unwise decision to play around with her voice in "Lady."
*  *  *  *  *

~Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"
 ~photography: United Artists / Mirisch Corporation 1961 ©


Charlotte said...

Excellent! But you fail to note how most of the actors in the film are just too old to play gang members who are teens or thereabout. I think Rita Moreno was 30 when she made the film.

joe baltake said...

I agree about the ages of the movie's performers, but I don't think Rita Moreno's character is supposed to be a teenager. I see her character as being in her early 20s. Still, casting a 30-year-old was pushing it.

Denise R said...

There for a while Steven Spielberg talked about remaking the film. That would be interesting, particularly if he cast age-appropriate performers. There a lot of young talent out there, multifaceted, who could make it work. I agree with Charlotte, it's difficult to watch mature actors play teenagers. Ugh!

Alex said...

What can you expect? WSS was written by middle-aged men, most of them gay. How can you realistically expect any accuracy about teenage gang members?

Sheila said...

Joe! First "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And now "West Side Story." Don't be surprised if the Turner Classic fans come after you!

Tim K. said...

I know that musicals are all about the music and there's no argument that West Side Story has great music. But sometimes that's not enough because, as you say, the camera misses nothing. If Spielberg does remake the movie, I hope he overhauls the script to make its message as powerful as it should be.

Brian Lucas said...

It should be noted, Joe, that Arthur Laurents was no fan of WSS. Of course, he was critical of all adaptations of his work if he wasn't directly involved himself and that includes the films "Summertime" and "Gypsy," both also based on his stage work. I guess he liked the film "The Way We Were" because he wrote the original screenplay. It's not very good but it sure is popular. I get the impression that he was impossible to please if not just plain impossible.

Michael Neff said...

I like your comparison of stage to film. It explains why so many plays, hits on stage, strike out as movies. I'm thinking specifically of the Neil Simon comedies that followed "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple," both as successful on film and on the Broadway stage. The others are a dim memory. Who remembers "I Ought to Be in Pictures" and "Only When I Laugh" or "Last of the Red-Hot Lovers"?

Marvin said...

What can I say, Joe, BUT THAT GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE?!? I loved your column about WEST SIDE STORY today. Marvin

Peter Warner said...

Joe: The older actors are much worse in West Side Story - Ned Glass, Simon Oakland and the actor who plays Officer Kupke (sp?). The acting all around leaves much to be desired.

Marilyn Halprin said...

Again, Joe, terrific comments and analysis.

Ray K. said...

Excuse me, but didn't Rita Moreno and George Chakiris win Oscars for their performance?

joe baltake said...

True, Ray, they won. But WSS had a landslide, Oscar-wise, that year. It won, all but one, of the Oscars for which it was nominated. It was the popular film of the year. Those awards belonged to Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift for their work in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

Jeff said...

Hi, Joe. One of your old readers (and fans) from Sacramento. I recall you once referring to Marni Nixon as "the bane of movie musicals" or something like that. Am I correct?

joe baltake said...