Oscar Review: West Side Story (1961)

The next entry on my list of Best Picture winners comes in at #41 with the American Film Institute and received 10 Oscars out of its 11 nominations and has been regarded as one of the best movie musicals of all time.

West Side Story is the wonderful tale of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, whose only crime is that they come from different communities. On the streets of New York City, two rival gangs battle over turf in a neighborhood that is far too small for either of their egos. The “Jets,” whites who feel they have a right because of their citizenship, and the “Sharks,” Puerto Ricans who want an equal footing in their new home, decide to settle things once and for all in a one on one fight for territory.

During a community dance, Tony, a founding member of the Jets, encounters Maria, the beautiful younger sister of Sharks’ frontman Bernardo. As the plans go forward with the fight, Tony and Maria’s love affair grows, much to the dismay of ‘Nardo and his friends.

When the fight goes south, leaving Tony’s friend, Riff, and Bernardo dead Maria and Tony make their plans to leave town. When he is falsly told that Maria was killed for falling in love with an American boy, Tony goes looking for her alleged killer and finds himself getting shot, and dying in Maria’s tearful embrace.
*****
West Side Story, based on Shakespeare’s beloved play Romeo and Juliet, has been one of my favorites since the first time I saw it back wen I was about 12 years old. The music, the tragedy, everything was just wonderfully told.

Robert Wise, who cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane, did a great job with Jerome Robbins in translating the prototypical tragic love story into a modern-day tale of crossing boundaries in the name of true love. Though, in this version, it can be said that all make out slightly better than Shakespeare’s lovers. Of course, having Maria live in grief could arguably be worse than Juliet’s fate.

Back on the subject of music, it should be no surprise that West Side Story is the source of 3 of AFI’s Top 100 Songs:

  • #59 – “Tonight”
  • #35 – “America”
    and, my personal favorite,
  • #20 – “Somewhere”

I haven’t seen West Side Story in a couple of years, but it’s definitely one that I need to watch again. Take some time to sit down and enjoy this great piece of film.

UPDATE: In an effort to report some of the honors received by these great films, it is interesting to note that West Side Story was named as the 3rd greatest love story of all time by AFI.

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