Robert Wise: West Side Story | Daily News

Robert Wise: West Side Story

The son of a meatpacker, Robert Wise ended up as one of Hollywood’s most renowned editors. Known primarily today for two of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Wise is also less well known for one of the most intelligent sci-fi films ever made. This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of those musicals, West Side Story. To mark the occasion, not a little fittingly perhaps, Steven Spielberg has come out with a remake. Yet to be released, this new version, updated to fit in with the New York of today, is just one more in a long, dreary list of rebooks Hollywood seems to never tire of churning out. But its release brings us face-to-face with the legacy of its original creator, his career, and his work.

When it first came out, West Side Story was instantly hailed as a classic. It went on to scoop no fewer than 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Mainstream critics called it a masterpiece, comparing it favourably to the Shakespeare text it is based on, Romeo and Juliet. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, not one to lavish plaudits on new films, loved it: “What they have done,” he wrote, “is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.” This was a sentiment shared by other writers also: in a retrospective review written decades later, Roger Ebert noted that “the movie began with a brave vision”, adding it to his Great Movies list. Yet even in his very laudatory review, Ebert wondered why the film, hailed in its day, “is not much mentioned by movie fans these days.”

Lavish set designs

Certainly, if you are to ask a teen these days for a list of classic movie musicals, he or she will invariably mention The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Singin’ in the Rain. This is not as surprising as it may seem: these films are packed with a melange of songs and landscapes, not to mention lavish set designs, which strike one immediately.

They are also based on an earlier time: The Sound of Music in the Second World War, My Fair Lady in the 19th century, and Singin’ in the Rain in that rather unforgettable time when silent movies were giving way to the talkies. Even if they lack expansive landscapes, they compensate for that through set designs and lavish costume designs: Cecil Beaton’s work in My Fair Lady being the definitive prototype. By contrast, in West Side Story, apart from dazzling song-and-dance sequences there is hardly any landscape, much less lavish costume designs or set pieces.

The songs and dances themselves, of course, have gone down in movie history. Robert Wise might have been director, but when it came to choreography, he relied heavily on Jerome Robbins, who staged those scenes for which the film is so loved today. Yet dazzling as they are, these dances, and those songs, seem to stand out rather awkwardly from a time when girls were swooning over Elvis’s pelvis. There were very many who took to them, but quite a number who did not; when the late Premaranjith Tilakaratne, who would adapt the story to a play, Kontare, played the soundtrack to the established don of Sinhala theatre, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, all the latter could say was, “What a cacophony.” Tilakaratne, I think, made a wise choice in having Shelton Premaratne as music director: none less would have done to replicate the dazzling flamboyance of that cacophonic soundtrack.

West Side Story has its share of limitations, and these are not hard to notice, even on a first viewing. Hollywood’s musicals have only rarely ventured into moralising on political or social problems. The closest that My Fair Lady comes to invoking Bernard Shaw’s indictment of the class system in England is Eliza Doolittle’s bitter rejoinder that she sold flowers, not herself, and “[n]ow you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.” Even in as perceptive a work like Porgy and Bess, where the theme of bigotry is not pushed to the background but is very much part of the foreground, there is no attempt at moralising.

Overall message

In West Side Story, on the other hand, there is little in the story that doesn’t moralise. From the kindly, elderly, but frustrated Doc, the Jewish drugstore owner who bemoans the fights between the Sharks and the Jets, to Maria’s and Tony’s promise of love triumphing over all, as Roger Ebert asked in his review, “isn’t this movie preaching to the choir?” It is easy to be converted by lines of dialogue if you fall in line with the overall message of the story; not so when you are in the theatre for two, or three, hours of entertainment. What racist would, in the wider scheme of things, fall for this kind of message? 60 years after West Side Story, just months or weeks before Spielberg’s remake comes out, we are as divided a world as ever: in not just America, but everywhere else. In that sense Wise’s movie assuredly preaches to the choir: there’s precious little in it, and its ending, that suggests anything else.

At first glance, Robert Wise may have been an unlikely choice to direct a musical about two contending clans dancing and prancing around with knives and daggers in New York. Wise first gained popularity as the editor of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, considered today as the greatest film ever made. He found himself in less happy circumstances when he had to edit Welles’s next work, The Magnificent Ambersons, on studio orders: the finished product was not to the director’s liking. His directorial debut was not in happy-go-lucky musicals, but in much darker terrains: The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to The Cat People (remade by Paul Schrader decades later), came out in 1944, three years after Kane.

Wise struck gold with a sci-fi masterpiece, The Day the Earth Stood Still, in 1951. Exactly two decades later, he struck gold with another sci-fi classic, The Andromeda Strain. In between he dabbled in several genres, including war thrillers (The Sand Pebbles) and Gothic horror (The Haunting). His last work, coming out in 2000, was a made-for-television sci-fi classic: a confirmation, in its own special way, of the man’s penchant for a genre that never stopped fascinating him – not even, it would seem, when he swerved away from this territory to give the cinema two of its iconic, and phenomenally popular, musical films.

Writing of The Sound of Music when it came out, the critic Pauline Kael famously lambasted The Sound of Music as a “sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat.” She was right: it is a testament both to that writer’s scalding brevity, and the movie’ popularity, that Wise’s Oscar-winning musical was exactly of the stuff that audiences wanted to eat. This is perhaps less true of West Side Story, but it is nonetheless true of that film too.

Add new comment