Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tonight's Movie: West Side Story (1961) at the Egyptian Theatre

We headed back to the Egyptian Theatre tonight for another very special screening, the "repremiere" of the newly restored soundtrack of the multi-Oscar-winning musical classic WEST SIDE STORY.

Our anticipation grew when the Egyptian Tweeted this afternoon that George Chakiris would be attending the screening in person. Chakiris, of course, won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Bernardo.

As fate would have it, a drive that takes 45 minutes with no traffic, or a little longer with occasional slowdowns, took us two hours and 15 minutes! We thus missed the first part of Chakiris's pre-screening chat, but we were so glad to make it in time for the start of the film and find seats in the packed theater that missing a bit of his talk seemed a small inconvenience, especially since we hadn't known far in advance that he would be there.

(We also found a new, closer parking lot...a tip for Southern Californians, if you're not going to take a detour to the Chinese Theatre and don't want to linger on the Walk of Fame, it's worth the extra money to park right behind the Egyptian instead of walking over from the Hollywood and Highland Center. You can walk directly from the lot into the Egyptian's courtyard.)

Mr. Chakiris, who is 76, looked wonderful, and I enjoyed what I heard of his talk. He spoke of Natalie Wood lovingly and said she was a wonderful person, and he also spoke of his admiration for both Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, the actresses who played Anita on stage (Rivera) and film (Moreno).

Chakiris counts among his favorite film experiences being in the chorus backing Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953) and backing Rosemary Clooney while she sang in WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954). He said Clooney was a lovely woman who became a good friend.

In more recent years Chakiris has designed jewelry. He closed his remarks by saying how special it was that the movie was released in 1961 and here he was able to "connect" with an audience about to see it nearly 50 years later.

I need to reinstall my photo program first, but if one of the photos I took of Mr. Chakiris turns out, I'll post it here later. We were some distance away in the balcony so I'm not sure whether the shots will be usable.

The plot of WEST SIDE STORY is fairly well known, so I will skip describing it here and let it be a surprise for anyone who happens to meet up with the film for the first time. (In a nutshell, think ROMEO AND JULIET told against the backdrop of early '60s gang warfare.) WEST SIDE STORY and I go way back to childhood...this was my fifth time to see it in a movie theater, and the soundtrack was one of the first LPs in my personal collection. I have some nice memorabilia from the film, including the souvenir roadshow program, and when I was in my mid-teens I wrote a lengthy paper on the show, its literary antecedents, and how it changed musical theater.

We had our first taste of the restored soundtrack when the distinctive "whistles" were heard echoing from different speakers as the lights began to lower for the overture. That was a thrilling moment, in and of itself! The film has outstanding orchestrations by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, and it sounded absolutely superb. It's been a very long time since I last saw the movie in a theater, but I feel certain it's never sounded better. Visually, other than a persistent small flaw in the image during most of the overture, the print was outstanding.

WEST SIDE STORY is one of my favorite musicals, but I tend to "space out" watching it due to the heavy subject matter. Despite a certain reluctance to completely immerse myself too often -- I've been known to put in my DVD and just watch the dance numbers! -- I've still seen this film quite a bit more often than many other musicals. The Bernstein-Sondheim score is one of my all-time favorites, and as I watched tonight I was reflecting that of all things I love about movies, nothing thrills me more than a big group dance number! And this film has an endless supply: "The Jet Song," "Dance at the Gym," "America," and my favorite, "Cool." As I recently wrote about that number, "Watching those dancers running straight toward the camera is an unforgettable 'wow' moment."

Musically, it's hard to choose my favorite song, but I think I'd have to ultimately pick the number that's been my favorite since I was around 11, "Quintet." The only musical number from another show that has a very similar impact for me, intertwining various characters and musical threads, is "One Day More," the Act 1 finale of LES MISERABLES.

Each time I see the film, the more convinced I am that one of the most underrated aspects is Natalie Wood's absolutely spot-on performance as Maria. Anyone watching WEST SIDE STORY and, say, LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER (1963) back to back would hardly know it's the same person. She's excellent in both, but in WEST SIDE STORY she completely disappears into the role; none of the cute "Natalie Wood" quirks that are present in some of her movies, such as a quizzical way of turning her head, are visible in this film. She is completely believable as an innocent young Puerto Rican girl who sings -- dubbed by the best in the business, Marni Nixon.

No matter how I steel myself to try to remain unemotional at the ending, that profound moment where the two Sharks come forward to help the Jets gets me every...single...time.

Besides Wood, Chakiris, and Moreno, the lead actors are Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. Tamblyn wasn't a trained dancer but when he was still a teenager his tumbling abilities were put to good use by choreographer Michael Kidd in one of the other all-time great dance movies, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). Tamblyn moves gracefully, and here again choreographer Jerome Robbins effectively utilizes Tamblyn's gymnastic abilities.

Special mention also goes to my favorite member of the supporting cast, Tucker Smith, who plays Ice and is the lead dancer on "Cool." Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, and John Astin are also in the cast.

A gentleman sitting next to us commented after the film ended that somehow he'd gone his entire life without having previously seen the film. I think I can safely describe him as bowled over by the experience; that feeling seems to have been shared by the audience, which was generous with its applause throughout the film and at the conclusion. For those who don't have the opportunity to see the movie in a theater, the excellent Collector's Edition DVD is the next-best thing.

The great Robert Wise shared codirecting credit with choregrapher Robbins. It's rather interesting to compare the start of WEST SIDE STORY with the beginning of Wise's THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)...he used a similar technique in both films, showing a wide geographic area and then gradually moving in closer and closer until the camera zooms in on the characters.

Several of Wise's WEST SIDE STORY colleagues, including screenwriter Ernest Lehman, production designer Boris Leven, orchestrator Irwin Kostal, and associate producer Saul Chaplin, also worked on THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which duplicated WEST SIDE STORY's wins for Best Picture and Best Director.

The movie runs 152 minutes. We saw the complete version this evening, including overture and intermission music.

I wouldn't be surprised if we return to the Egyptian before the year is out, as there are more exciting things coming up on the calendar...Leslie Caron at AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951), anyone?! If we can secure tickets, that would certainly make up for not being able to afford seeing the 60th anniversary screening at the TCM Festival next spring.

Previous Egyptian Theatre posts: Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the Noir City Film Festival.

Related Posts Update: Book Review: West Side Story (Music on Film Series) (December 2010); Tonight's Theater: West Side Story (September 2011).


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

What a great experience! Thanks for taking us along. Hope you get to see "American in Paris" as well.

4:43 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

How neat! That sounds like so much fun! And that's great for the parking tip too. I haven't been able to go to any of the revivals down in Hollywood because I'd be going by myself and my family freaks out about me being alone down in Hollywood at night. Knowing there's a parking lot right behind might help.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

You're very welcome, Jacqueline, and thanks!

DKoren, maybe you could meet my family there sometime so you wouldn't be alone...although then your family might freak at you meeting total strangers, LOL!

I would be leery going alone if I had to park at the H&H Center (roughly 3 blocks away) and walk back alone late in the evening -- although truth to tell there are usually others from the theater audience you can walk with -- but the lot behind makes it super-simple. You simply walk through a gate, up a ramp, and around a corner, and there you are in front of the theater ticket window. There's at least one other lot in close proximity. When we left, the lot was filled with other Egyptian moviegoers so it felt quite safe. The lot costs quite a bit more but is well worth the convenience and security.

Hope you get to visit soon!!

Best wishes,

9:38 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

You know, that would be very neat to meet you and your family down there sometime! My family would be much happier with me going, knowing that, that's for sure. They do love classic films too and would probably go with me if the film was a matinee, but more often than not, the ones I want to see are evening shows. We'll have to keep our eye on the schedules!

7:45 AM  

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