Best Picture #34: West Side Story (1961)

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is West Side Story (1961).

An instant classic upon its release, in the decades since West Side Story has continued to be revered as one of the all time greats by filmmakers, critics, and moviegoers alike. I disagree with all of them. Adapting a story that was never good in any form, we get the wholly unbelievable tale of a woman falling in love with a man from a rival gang and mere hours later being willing to run away with him after he killed her brother, an act which apparently had no impact on her. The rushed nature of the film’s timeline is a huge drawback that makes many actions make no sense and even seem stupid but it’s hardly the worst of West Side Story’s mistakes. Adapting a story that had no business being a musical into something where people could break out into song and dance at any tense moment serves only to make any attempts at seriousness seem silly and all emotion feel lighthearted. For every song like “Maria” or “I Feel Pretty” that actually fits the mood of the characters and perhaps conveys it better than dialogue may have, there’s a gang fight with snapping and choreographed dancing or a song with a tune that seems directly in opposition to its lyrics. Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes during “America” when the Sharks sing a song about the struggles of immigrants and minorities in America being denied opportunities and mistreated (something the film actively helped perpetuate with its casting of white actors caked in a few layers of brown makeup portraying almost all of the Puerto Rican characters) as an energetic beat plays for fast-moving dance moves with smiles aglow on every face. In just about every way, West Side Story is a film confused about what it wants to say and seems content with taking the easiest path in every moment, prioritizing box office appeal over coherence and meaning, and some great choreography and a couple catchy tunes aren’t enough for me to recognize it as the supposed masterpiece it is often considered to be.

The Real Best Picture:

Anything else! The other four nominees that year range from good to great but any would be better than this trainwreck. The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, and Judgment at Nuremberg all would’ve made me particularly happy, but The Hustler is the one that let us get Scorsese’s best film so I’ll go with that.

Best Picture Winners

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