Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Battle of The Oscar Stars: Best Picture 1961

Trying to keep up on a heavy load of current award contenders is starting to kill the quest to finish watching all of the past winners. Basically, this reason is just an excuse for why it's been about three weeks since the last Best Picture winner was watched; I own the movie too! Well, with three days off from work coming up, and destined for gloomy days with rain in the forecast, this weekend will probably be a good old fashioned flick extravaganza where I can do some catching up.

For now, we will join a smooth grooving gang and snap some fingers with the Best Picture winner of 1961; West Side Story. Becoming the only musical to win 10 Academy Awards, even 50 years later there is a lot to savor.

The plot follows the original "star crossed lovers" story, Romeo & Juliet, but instead set in 1950's America where there is a boom of cultures colliding in New York City. One American, Tony, and a young woman, Maria, from Puerto Rico, find themselves in a tragic love entanglement when their families, friends, and different cultures violently clash.

This is a true musical where music fills almost every moment and it is at its best when the cast is belting out one of the many beautiful classic songs ("Tonight", "Maria") or stepping out in all of the brilliantly choreographed dance sequences on the streets of NYC.  After watching this numerous times, I still can't help but get chills as Maria and Tony grasp each other and sing "Somewhere".

Set design is not always important, but it can't be ignored in this film. This movie is all about treating New York as another character and the city is actively displayed from performing atop a roof, for "America", to the first moments between Maria and Tony in a moonlit alley, on the modern day balcony, atop crisscrossing fire escapes.

Not as much can be highly regarded when it comes to some of the dialogue between characters or acting quality outside of the musical scenes, but honestly everything else is too good to linger on the little bit of bad.

The performances by Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood are superb, but what ruins it a little (for me) is knowing the well known secret of this movie; Wood is not really singing. Moreno and several others had help from dubbed voices in some songs, but because Wood is the big star, it is disappointing. The whole time I think, "but that's not really her voice", and it ruins it slightly.

Marni Nixon, the worlds most awesome singing voice without a face, sang for Debrorah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, as well as Wood. The controversy that occurred during the filming of West Side Story, as in Wood had no idea she would be dubbed, can be heard in this fantastic interview Nixon recently gave to NPR.

She's fabulous, and there is not a time when I don't point out Nixon's small, but still an actual onscreen role, as a nun in The Sound Of Music. Nixon basically was the musicals in the 1960's, seriously, she is part of all of them!

Singing voices aside, West Side Story remains beloved for the endlessly beautiful music, and it helps that it updates the most famous and tragic story of all time.

Excuse me, while I spend the rest of the afternoon using this music as the soundtrack to my life, where I will daydream about singing atop a fire escape looking out at the NYC skyline.

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