“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.”
West Side Story at the TCM Classic Film Festival
Years from now, people all over the world will remember where they were when an American Navy Seal team caught and killed Osama Bin Laden in a daring raid. Me? I was watching Riff and Bernardo dance-battle at the TCM Classic Film Festival in West Side Story.
West Side Story, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was screened in a flawless 70mm print to a packed house at the iconic Egyptian theater. The audience sang and danced in their seats (or at least lip-synched), which might usually be a distraction or annoyance but with the festival atmosphere and stunning colors and choreography writ large on the screen, it was practically impossible to contain oneself. The news of Bin Laden’s death did nothing to dissuade the enthusiastic applause that followed every musical number. (It may even have contributed to the elation—USA! USA!)
As befitting a classic of its stature, the screening was introduced by several special guests. TCM weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz conducted a discussion with George Chakiris (Bernardo), Marni Nixon (who dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing voice), and the film’s legendary producer Walter Mirisch. The making of West Side Story was far from smooth sailing, as Mirisch testified. He had envisioned a film that would incorporate the brilliance of the stage musical and the technical expertise of a seasoned screen professional. Thus, he hired Jerome Robbins (the director and choreographer of the 1957 stage version) and Robert Wise (The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to co-direct the feature.
But, as Mirisch admitted, combining two artistic sensibilities on the film just didn’t work. He described Robbins as a genius and perfectionist but that there was “too much indecisiveness” in the editing room over what takes to use. Robbins’ delays finally cost the production too much money and although the musical scenes he had shot are probably the most iconic in the film, the task of firing Robbins from the production fell to the veteran producer.
Walter Mirisch said having to fire Jerome Robbins off West Side Story was “one of the worst moments of [his] life.” Robbins, the architect behind virtually every aspect of the stage show, was understandably devastated and asked that his name be taken off the picture. Luckily, Mirisch convinced him that wouldn’t be a good idea. In 1961, Robbins was acknowledged alongside Wise with the Best Director Oscar.
Robbins’ firing also impacted the cast who had come to rely on his guidance during the physically demanding dance scenes. George Chakiris said Natalie Wood (Maria) had a very “difficult time” adjusting after Robbins left and Robert Wise was brought in to handle the “melodramatic love story.” Chakiris too praised Robbins, saying he could not have worked the same way without him. All three guests were quick to give equal praise to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, although it was clear in their collective opinion, that while Wise merely “photographed” West Side Story, Robbins made the picture into the classic it is today.
Mankiewicz and Co. also touched on the most controversial aspect of the film: Marni Nixon dubbing Natalie Wood’s singing voice. Nixon, who also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King and I, was asked by Robert Wise to fill in for Wood fairly late in the production. Natalie Wood was very anxious to do all her own singing, training with a voice coach and prepared to perform the whole score, except the particularly high notes. In fact, Wood recorded all of Maria’s songs with a complete orchestra before the decision was made to replace her work with Nixon. Because of the last minute change, Nixon was not able to collaborate with Natalie Wood as she had with Debora Kerr.
She had to dub to Wood’s filmed sound, which was sometimes out of sync (a very difficult and backward dubbing process). Nixon said she did her best to imitate Wood’s voice and accent in the film, which she did to great success. Walter Mirisch was quick to say that Wood had a “very, very nice voice,” but “not good enough” to carry the picture.
One wonders if she would have been allowed to use her own voice had the film been made today. Modern audiences won’t tolerate dubbing over stars; they would rather hear Johnny Depp or Nicole Kidman actually sing, regardless of the quality of their voices, than hear an unknown professional in the role. Although Ben Mankiewicz prodded Mirisch and Nixon for details on the existence of Natalie Wood’s West Side Story tapes, none of the guests were forthcoming with details of their release.
Like many of the films screened at the festival, the organizers did their best to recreate the experience of seeing the films in their original exhibition. In the case of West Side Story, this meant a lavish, roadshow atmosphere, complete with orchestral prologue and fifteen intermissions. It is especially instructive to view roadshow films in a theater because, with their wide angles, bright colors, and extravagant length, they were specifically designed as an alternative to television.
Of course, the show itself is an all-time classic both on stage and screen. The film won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record number for a musical. Despite the hiccups in its production, producer Walter Mirisch said West Side Story still had the “happiest result of all films of [his] career.” (And this from a man with three Academy Awards.)
Re-watching the film, it is remarkable how many of the musical numbers feel vibrant and immediate while still carrying so much cultural resonance. Even those who have never seen the film will recognize the choreography of the opening scene where the Jets roam around the basketball courts, snapping their fingers and leaping across the blacktop. Even “minor” numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke” or “Dance at the Gym” are bursting with ecstatic energy and suffused with the joy of performing.
I still think the Shark-sung “America” is the film’s best number, featuring two blistering performances from George Chakiris and Rita Moreno (who both won Oscars for their roles). The TCMFF audience thought so too, as it seemed they were only waiting for the actors to stop singing to burst into wild applause and shouts of joy at the end of the number. Seeing West Side Story at the TCMFF was truly a full night’s entertainment and a viewing experience I’ll never forget.