|Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood (as Tony & Maria)|
This year represents the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. TIFF is celebrating the bard with a series of films inspired by the classic plays with "All the World's a Screen - Shakespeare on Film" which runs until July 3, 2016. This is the first review for that series ...
Is there a sexier reiteration of the Romeo and Juliet theme than West Side Story? I think not. I can feel the collective eye rolls of many Spanish speaking people when they think of how beloved this film is by non-Latinos such as myself. But it works so beautifully with the themes of Romeo and Juliet - the blossoming of young love, the tribal opposition of family and clan to the lovers, the sense of reconciliation (albeit perhaps temporary) at the end after tragedy ensues.
There is a reason that a balcony that once allegedly held the 13 year old Juliet in Verona, Italy endures as a site for lovers from around the world - the myth lives on ("Juliet", whomever she might be, never stood on this balcony by the visits continue unabated). The story of the lovers dates back to at least the 15th century with a tale of two teenage Italian lovers in Masuccio's Novelle (1472) although Shakespeare likely learned the tale through various English incarnation,s perhaps more recently Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).
The film opens on the balletic, joyful moves of the Jets, native New Yorkers and sons of immigrants, dancing through the gritty west side of Manhattan - and the Sharks, recent immigrants from Puerto Rico - on their respective New York turfs (representing the age old rivalry between the clans of Montagues and the Capulets). The opening sequence elegantly portrays the tensions between the two groups. No matter that are actors are closer to 25 than15. One gang is fair skinned or freckled and "hip", the other is olive skinned, sleek, and well dressed. Both are impoverished and victimized by the cops and the system. Neither wants to cede the neighbourhood to the other. The boys spread their arms like winged, joyful creatures surveying their meagre land.
Tony (Richard Beymer as the Romeo figure) is a former Jet beseeched by Riff the Jets' gang leader (Russ Tamblyn as Mercutio, Romeo's kinsman) to attend a dance where an ultimatum will be presented to Bernardo (a physically perfect George Chakiris representing Tybalt), leader of the Sharks to start a "rumble", a gang fight.
In the play, before the lovers meet, Mercutio speaks to Romeo of an enchanting dream of Mab, queen of the fairies, enticing him the night before the mask at the home of the Capulets. Here Tony senses "Something's Coming ..." Something exciting, something wonderful.
|Mab, queen of the fairies, |
Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1788
A vivid visual line separates the two groups with the exception of the image of Bernardo's sister Maria (the exquisite Natalie Wood as Juliet) in a demure white dress with a red sash which initially she abhors. She is meant to be with Chino (as the figure of Paris, a Capulet kinsman who wishes to marry Juliet) but she tells Anita she feels nothing when she looks at him.
The wisps of vivid colour part on the dance floor, literally, and Tony beholds his Juliet. They undulate gracefully towards each other, barely moving at first, then gently mimicking the energy of the Jets, the dramatic flounces of the Sharks. Bernardo roughly pulls his sister Maria way from Tony.
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Act I, scene 5
|Juliet's balcony at Via Cappello, No. 23, Verona|
In the bridal shop, Maria's confidence soars ("I feel pretty") inspiring her skeptical co-workers. When Tony arrives by the back door, the couple imagines telling their families of their engagement and their marriage with only the elegantly dressed mannequins as their witnesses. Maria wears a white veil and Tony a top hat - beneath a cross shaped window as if in a church. In their minds they are as secretly wed as Romeo and Juliet were wed by the Friar.
But that night, the Sharks and Jets are to meet at Doc's soda fountain for a war council. Doc (representing the sympathetic Friar Laurence in the play) urges the Jets to avoid trouble, "When I was your age ..." he begins wearily, to which Jet gang member Action replies, "You were never my age!"
Maria convinces Tony to go to the rumble, to stop the fighting. He has convinced them to fight hand to hand with no weapons, or so he thinks. When Tony tries to intervene he is attacked and Riff steps in. Riff is stabbed and killed by Nardo; in a moment of panic, Tony kills Nardo too. The gangs disperse with the sound of the police siren. The die is cast.
When the lovers reunite in Maria's apartment, she despairs, "It's not us, it's everything around us ..." Hate and distrust contaminate their love. "There's a place for us," they plead in "Somewhere". There is still hope that they can escape the racism, the narrowness of their lives. The couple spend the night together and are found the next morning by Anita who begs Maria to stick with "one of your own kind" in "A Boy Like That." But Maria persuades Anita of the rightness of her love. Love supersedes all ...
I have a love and it's all that I have, right or wrong. What else can I do? I love him, I'm his, and everything he is, I am too. I have a love and it's all that I need, right or wrong, and he needs me too. I love him, we're one. There's nothing to be done. Not a thing I can do. But hold him, hold him forever, be with him tomorrow ... When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is ... your life.Maria persuades Anita to go to Doc's and tell Tony that she is being detained by the police. Tony is hiding in Doc's cellar protected by the Jets. When Anita insists on seeing Tony the Jets attack her and are on the verge of raping Anita when Doc intervenes. She is so furious that she tells the boys that Maria is dead, killed by a vindictive Chino, the boy whom her brother wished her to marry. In despair, Tony runs into the streets calling Chino's name, begging him to kill him too. Maria hears his cries and joins him in the school playground and at the moment of their physical contact, Tony is shot by Chino.
Maria grabs Chino's gun and accuses them all of killing Tony, not with a gun, but with their hate. In the last shot, she leaves the school ground, wrapped in the black mantle, as if following a funeral cortege. The boys, together, from both sides, pick up Tony's body and carry him out. At last, a tenuous peace, but at what cost?
Some elements of the film have not aged well ... the attempt to capture the feeling of beatnik influenced youth culture of that age ("Okay Daddy-O!"), the belittlement of Baby John (who likely, we assume as modern viewers, is gay) and the shunning of Anybody, a tough tomboy who is refused entry in the Jets, flows against the zeitgeist of today. The faux New York and Puerto Rican accents sometimes irk albeit the screenplay by Ernest Lehman which is by turns witty and emotionally honest. Richard Breymer, a talented dancer and actor, strains the imagination as a former hardened gang member as do many of the twenty somethings playing teenagers.
But the exquisite performances of our lovers Tony and Maria still touch the heart and the message remains relevant, especially in these Trump times: racism wounds, even kills, and endangers society's most vulnerable members.