I am declaring today a national holiday: West Side Story Day. On this date 50 years ago the film version of WSS premiered in New York City. Yesterday Rita Moreno and George Chakiris (Anita and Bernardo, the sexiest couple to ever dance together) were on Talk of the Nation, and I called in – actually got through! — to thank them for what they gave me. Of course, I didn’t have enough time to say half of what I wanted to say.
I was 16 when the movie came out, and had been reading about it in my movie magazines. It was my kind of thing: love among the savages, you might say. I had no idea of the huge presence it would become in my life when I saw it with my first real boyfriend, George Delaney, who I still dream about and who is no longer on this planet; we double-dated with my best friend Kathy and her George, to whom she’s still married. We got all dressed up and went to the opening in Westbury; the rest of the audience was decked out in diamonds and furs.
The whole thing was out of character for us, kids from the poor side of the tracks who were known as hoodlums – though compared to the Sharks and the Jets we were almost clean-cut. The Georges made fun of the singing, especially in Tony’s death scene, while Kathy and I cried our hearts out.
Over the years I’ve seen WSS so many times I’ve lost count, but it must be, conservatively speaking, around 40. I remember people I saw it with, events surrounding it, and I know chunks of the script and the entire soundtrack by heart. I have tortured people with drunken recitations of Anita’s parting speech to the Jets after they (probably) rape her, and Maria’s oration after Tony dies.
Not many people can claim West Side Story as their very first movie, but my son can. I took Daryl to see it when he was 4; he took one look at Riff (Russ Tamblyn) dancing in the alley with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and whispered, “I want to be in the movies.” Silly realistic Mommy said, “You are in the movies.” He pointed to the screen and said “No. Up there.” (I should’ve known then and there this kid was going to be trouble.)
Around the time of my 38th birthday VCR’s had just come out, so I bought one and held a WSS party for a few close friends. The next year I held an enormous party billed as Marcy’s First Annual 39th Birthday Party. Some people stayed the whole weekend, and naturally WSS ran several times.
Someone told me the reason I can keep seeing it is because there’s so much in it, on so many levels. To this day I still find new elements. When I saw it through Shakespeare’s eyes, a la Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, all I could think was how cleverly the WSS writers had updated Shakespeare. When I saw it at the Castro Theater, I realized that most of the Jets’ actors were gay. (By the way, judging by the search Engine Terms leading people to this post, people seem to think George Chakiris is gay; as far as I know, he is not.) At the Paramount in Oakland I saw it through the eyes of young black men, a bunch of whom tittered when the Jets first started dancing, but halfway through the Jet Song they stopped, and remained enrapt and silent for the duration. Even yesterday, when I slid it into the DVD player after my NPR call, I understood for the first time that the opening number, when the Sharks and Jets chase one another all over New York, tells the history of Puerto Rican immigration, with the Sharks increasing their numbers as the scene goes on.
West Side Story is not only a great movie, it’s one of the finest works of art produced in America. The list of those who worked on it includes Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, geniuses all. Take a look in Movie Database for the rest of the credits.
When I called TOTN yesterday, I held a full page of scribbled notes – but after I rattled some of them off to the show’s telephone screener, she asked if anything in the movie “doesn’t hold up.” I told her some of the love scenes don’t, and she said I should be sure to mention that. I idiotically obeyed her, evoking an argument from Rita Moreno! Now I realize the screener was trying to inject conflict, always more interesting than pure love. What I said isn’t even true; I never liked some of those love scenes, because Richard Beymer plays Tony as a wimpy candy-ass. What miscasting! But hey, nothing’s perfect. Still, what I wish I’d told Rita is that when she dances on the roof during the America number, I come pretty close to orgasm.
Happy West Side Story Day!
And remember, I’m always available for another viewing — if you can tolerate my singing along!
- ‘Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup’ review: Delight (sfgate.com)
- Bella Donna: Rita Moreno (bellasugar.com)