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.
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.
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.
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.
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
~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©
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1957©
~photography: Universal-International 1961©
~photography: United Artists 1960©