West Side Story (1961)
US, 1961 – 153 mins
West Side Story magically transmutes Romeo and Juliet’s dramatic momentum and rich verse into the wit and longing of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, Leonard Bernstein’s pulsating music and the poetry in motion of Jerome Robbins’ choreography.
As in the stage musical triumphantly directed by Robbins on Broadway in 1957, gangs of white American Jets (Montagues) take on Puerto Rican Sharks (Capulets) on the streets of New York. Romeo becomes Tony, who works in the soda shop run by the elderly Doc (the Friar Laurence figure), leaving Jets co-founder Riff (Mercutio) to run the gang alone. Maria (Juliet) works in a bridal shop after being brought over from Puerto Rico by her volatile brother, Bernardo (Tybalt and Capulet combined). Bernardo runs the Sharks, dates Anita, who replaces the Nurse as Maria’s confidante, and wants his sister to marry Chino (Paris). Two cops, racist Lieutenant Schrank and ineffectual Officer Krupke, assume the Prince’s judicial role at the end of a dazzling opening ‘fight’, in which the gangs trade dance-steps instead of blows.
Romeo and Juliet’s love poetry is matched by the duets and solos for handsome, anodyne Richard Beymer (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) and radiant Natalie Wood (dubbed by Marni Nixon), who gives a devastating portrayal of innocence betrayed. Their songs include the tingling anticipation of Maria’s “I Feel Pretty”, the dazed joy of Tony’s “Maria” and the shared hope of “Tonight” in their fire-escape ‘balcony’ scene. Their hesitant intimacy is played off against the overwhelming vitality of the Jets’ delinquent’s lament, “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and the Sharks girls’ equally ironic view of immigrant life, “America”, an incomparable rooftop stomp led by Moreno’s fiery Anita and Chakiris’ brooding Bernardo.
These arm-thrusting, pelvis-tilting ensembles are a delight and, crucially, make you care about all the singers, from the smoldering Anita/Bernardo relationship, down to the most junior Jet. Where Shakespeare alternates between children, parents and surrogate parents (Friar and Nurse), here the focus on youth never wavers (Doc, Schrank and Krupke make a handful of appearances; Maria’s parents remain off screen), and the racial prejudice dividing the kids is a more convincing plot motor than the motiveless “ancient grudge” pitting Capulets against Montagues.
Granted, nobody in 1961 thought the choreographed ‘violence’ or the Jets’ expletive-free street slang reflected contemporary gang culture. The singing and dancing take us several steps from reality and Robert Wise (who took sole charge after MGM sacked Robbins as co-director mid-shoot), pushes us further, occasionally surrounding Tony and Maria with dream-like optical effects. Yet you believe in the story totally, and the ending shocks without recourse to sleeping potions or fateful bad timing.
After the ‘rumble’ in which Bernardo kills Riff and Tony kills Bernardo, Anita is almost raped by the Jets as she tries to deliver Maria’s message to Tony. Enraged, she tells the Jets that Chino has killed Maria. Tony goes looking for Chino, who shoots him, and he dies in Maria’s arms. As he is carried away by Jets and Sharks nobody says, or sings, a word and the silence provides a stunning conclusion to a masterpiece that grossed more than eight times its lavish $5m budget in the US, and won ten Oscars – just reward for the greatest film musical ever made.
Dir: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins; Prod: Robert Wise; Scr: Ernest Lehman; Book: Arthur Laurents; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; DOP: Daniel L. Fapp; Editor: Thomas Stanford; Score: Leonard Bernstein; Main Cast: Richard Beymer (Tony), Natalie Wood (Maria), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Rita Moreno (Anita), Ned Glass (Doc), Jose De Vega (Chino), Simon Oakland (Lt. Schrank), William Bramley (Officer Krupke)
Ten Things I Hate About You
US, 1999 – 97 mins
This high-school take on The Taming of the Shrew was one of the most enjoyable and intelligent teen comedies of the 1990s, thanks to fine ensemble acting and a good-natured script, which followed the Shrew’s plot as faithfully as Hollywood conventions and contemporary sexual politics would allow.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the teen alien in TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun), plays Cameron, the Lucentio figure who enrols at Padua High, Seattle, and instantly falls for Bianca (the cutesy Larisa Oleynik), a vapid sophomore. “I burn, I pine, I perish,” Cameron exclaims, borrowing from the Shrew. The trouble is that Bianca’s father is refusing to let her date until her older sister does, and since bookish, university-bound Kat (Julia Stiles) is “a heinous bitch” with a reputation for assaulting boys, Cameron’s chances appear slim.
Tranio’s role is assumed by Cameron’s nerdish new friend, Michael (David Krumholtz, a junior cross between Woody Allen and Billy Crystal), who dedicates himself to aiding his pursuit of Bianca, first suggesting that he help her with her French homework (mirroring Lucentio’s disguise as a Latin tutor).
The plot moves into gear once a wealthy and impossibly vain pupil, Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan, as Hortensio and Gremio rolled into one), sets his sights on Bianca. Michael and Cameron convince Joey he can only reach her by hiring a boyfriend for Kat, and Pat Verona (Heath Ledger), the school’s Australian-accented wildman, takes on the assignment, for which Joey will pay $100 per date.
Pat soon realizes that his habitual macho tactics will not work this time, so the Shrew takes on a “caring, sharing” 1990s slant: to tame the shrew – or, rather, appeal to a discerning, spirited teenager – the hero must tame himself. Assisted by inside information from Bianca, he adapts to Kat’s tastes. He quits smoking, pretends to admire Sylvia Plath and looks after Kat when she gets drunk at a wild house party – an obligatory component for a teen movie, even one with sixteenth-century roots (as is a Various Artists pop soundtrack, so there are 14 strategically placed songs from the likes of The Cardigans and Semisonic). Kat is finally won over by the best of several silly set-pieces: Pat’s sportsfield rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, accompanied by the school band. This being a Hollywood romantic comedy he, naturally, has genuinely fallen for her.
Accompanied by Bianca, who has rejected the obnoxious Joey in favour of Cameron, Kat hooks up with Pat at the Prom. But when she overhears Joey remonstrating with him over the cash-for-dating scam she rushes out, furious. Back at school the following Monday he convinces her he really cares and they are reconciled.
From start to finish, experienced sitcom director Gil Junger generates laughs without resorting to the American Pie-style “gross-out” gags that might have boosted the film’s worldwide takings of $63m (impressive nonetheless). There are some original touches courtesy of Padua High’s eccentric teachers (including Miss Perky, played by The West Wing’s Allison Janney) and bizarre student cliques, although not every Shakespeare reference comes off (one of Kat’s friends is lumbered with a deeply contrived obsession with the playwright). Ledger’s abundant charm in his Hollywood debut helps explain his subsequent success in many more American films, while Stiles’ quick-witted performance immediately earned her two more Shakespearean roles: Ophelia in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) and Desdemona in O (2000), where Keegan rejoins her as Cassio.
Stiles excels during the scene in which Kat attributes her boy-hatred not to resentment at paternal favouritism towards the ‘perfect’ younger sister (a major factor in the Shrew, and one that would surely still have connected with the female portion of 10 Things’ target audience), but shame and regret at losing her virginity to the preening Joey three years earlier. In addition, because 1990s audiences would never accept an American dad treating his girls like “goods and chattels” to be sold to the highest bidder, Walter Stratford (a marvellous cameo from Larry Miller) acquires an equally moral motive for his “no dating” rule: he is an obstetrician desperate for his daughters not to end up like the teen mothers whose unplanned babies he delivers every week. Thus a film financed by Disney, supreme upholder of family values, updates Shakespeare while poignantly and wittily condemning underage sex.
The significance of the title is finally revealed in the penultimate scene. A hip, black English teacher has instructed Kat’s class to write a Shakespearean sonnet and her classroom recital replaces Katharina’s “honour thy husbands” speech, as she tearfully itemizes Pat’s flaws, ending on: “I hate the way I don’t hate you/Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.”
Dir: Gil Unger; Prod: Andrew Lazar; Scr: Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith; DOP: Mark Irwin; Editor: O. Nicholas Brown; Score: Richard Gibbs; Main Cast: Julia Stiles (Katarina Stratford), Heath Ledger (Patrick Verona), Larry Miller (Walter Stratford), Larisa Oleynik (Bianca Stratford), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Cameron James), David Krumholtz (Michael Eckman), Andrew Keegan (Joey Donner)
– Book tickets for Shakespeare On Film Season Double Bill of West Side Story/ 10 Things I Hate About You here