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3.17.2009

Vanity Fair, I heart you.


West Side Story Revisited.


"West Side Story is gang warfare set to music. It’s dance as a weapon. It’s love and death with a Latin beat. West Side Story rocks. The first thing you hear is snapping fingers. That beat. The hoodlums who make up the rival gangs the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and the Jets (Anglo-Irish-Italian) fill the frame in the early going, trying to out-macho one another with charged moves, only to give way to the riveting heroines Maria and Anita.

The inspiration for West Side Story came to choreographer-director Jerome Robbins in 1949. It was just the wisp of an idea at first … Romeo and Juliet updated for modern-day, urban America. Then, in the mid-1950s, he read newspaper accounts of Puerto Rican gangs fighting it out with veteran neighborhood gangs, and something clicked. Robbins was just the person to see it through. He was no stranger to the meaner side of life, having been born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side long before it was a cute place to meet for drinks. He enlisted the help of three brilliant collaborators—Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book)—and brought West Side Story to the stage in 1957. Not everyone got it. As Robbins biographer Deborah Jowitt notes, “No previous Broadway musical had ended Act I with two dead bodies onstage and Act II with a third.” But a perceptive critic of the age, Kenneth Tynan, called the show a “rampaging ballet, with bodies flying from the air as if shot from guns.”

Robbins and co-director Robert Wise managed to hang on to that quality for their 1961 film version, which won 10 Academy Awards. Not that Robbins cared all that much about pats on the back from the Hollywood establishment. He put his two Oscars (one for directing and a special award for choreography) in the basement, according to Jowitt. Of the trophies themselves, Robbins complained in a letter to a friend that they had “no faces, no fingers, no asses, no balls, no nothing. They’re bland like Hollywood, they’re gold and glued over.” But the movie has cojones to spare—without stinting on elegance. (Not that certain cojones aren’t elegant.)

A huge West Side Story fan is Jennifer Lopez, who says she watched the film “37 times” as a kid growing up in the Bronx. She was especially attracted to Anita, played by Rita Moreno in the film—a fiery foil to Natalie Wood’s dewy Maria. Says Lopez, “I never wanted to be that wimpy Maria, who sits around pining for her guy. I wanted to be Anita, who danced her way to the top.” With this portfolio, J.Lo gets her wish, and so do we. —JIM WINDOLF
"


BORN TO IT
With this pose Jennifer Lopez captures the essence of Anita, the defiant Latina immigrant. Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her Anita in the film version—and would go on to win an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony in a show-business maneuver so rare that it is now referred to as “the Moreno sweep.” While Lopez’s mantel isn’t quite that full, she is equally at ease on-screen, in the recording studio, and onstage.


TURF BATTLE
The Sharks and the Jets mark out a piece of urban turf while simultaneously expressing the joy of being young, vigorous, and able to kick ass. As Bernardo, in red, Rodrigo Santoro (Behind the Sun) leads fellow Sharks played by Brandon T. Jackson (Tropic Thunder) and Jay Hernandez (Grindhouse, Hostel, Ladder 49). The Jets’ leader, Riff, in yellow, is played by Chris Evans, equally hot-headed in the role of the Torch in the Fantastic Four movies. Rounding out his crew are Cam Gigandet (The O.C., Twilight), Drake Bell (yes, the Drake, of Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh), and Robert Pattinson (Edward in Twilight, Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). They are not fully visible but they don’t mind, because they know the maxim, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” (Personally I think photographer Mark Selinger did a great job compositing the two famous photos of the gangs--except for this hiding-Rob-Pattinson-tomfoolery:)




THE DRESS SHOP
Bernardo (Rodrigo Santoro), is focused on his girlfriend, Anita (Jennifer Lopez), whose far-off gaze suggests she dreams of moving beyond the confines of the seamstress’s life. Bernardo’s little sister—the heroine of the film’s Romeo-and-Juliet drama—is Maria, here brought back to life by ingenue Camilla Belle, who played a fetching cavewoman in the would-be international blockbuster 10,000 B.C. Maria’s initial disappointment with the white dress sewn for her by Anita soon gives way to anticipation as she realizes the dress will cause her to stand out at the dance, where trouble shall begin in earnest.


THE DANCE
Between Maria (Camilla Belle, far left) and Tony (Ben Barnes, far right, also known as Prince Caspian), it is dancing, dancing, dancing. Latin steps predominate on the left, as the Sharks and their ladies give America a taste of the culture to come. On the right, we have a series of funky Anglo moves, as the Jets and their gals go rhythmically at it. On either side, our two tragic protagonists have eyes only for each other. The lead Sharks dancers are Anita (J.Lo, in an incredible pose) and Bernardo (Rodrigo Santoro). The Jet girl dancing with Riff (Chris Evans) is played by Ashley Tisdale (of High School Musical fame). Rounding out the Sharks, left to right: Minka Kelly (she’s Lyla on Friday Night Lights), Jay Hernandez, Natalie Martinez (Death Race), Brandon T. Jackson, Melonie Diaz (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints). On the Jets’ side: Sean Faris (Never Back Down), Shane Lynch (she’s gonna be big), Robert Pattinson, Cam Gigandet, Trilby Glover (88 Minutes), Brittany Snow (Hairspray), Drake Bell.


THE ROOFTOP
Before West Side Story takes its tragic turn, Anita (Jennifer Lopez, amazing in purple) drives the film’s most effervescent and sexually charged scene: the rocking rooftop song-and-dance sequence set to “America.” The lyrics, by a young Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, etc.), give Anita all the ammunition she needs to top the verbal thrusts and parries delivered by Bernardo (Rodrigo Santoro, to the left of J.Lo) and his band of toughs. From left to right: Jay Hernandez, Brandon T. Jackson, Sean Faris, Shane Lynch, Melonie Diaz, Minka Kelly, Natalie Martinez.


TONIGHT, TONIGHT
Tony (Ben Barnes) is trying to leave behind his old street-fighting ways … which is tough for him to pull off, now that he has fallen in love with Maria (Camilla Belle), who happens to be the sister of top Shark Bernardo. But tonight is a night for a serenade. A fire escape takes the place of a Veronese balcony, but the underlying emotions that have brought Tony and Maria out of their enemy camps are the same ones that fired Romeo and Juliet, not to mention James Carville and Mary Matalin.


THE KNIVES COME OUT
At Tony’s urging, the Sharks and the Jets agree to an old-fashioned street fight, no weapons. But on a night so charged, it’s inevitable the knives will come out. Shark leader Bernardo (Rodrigo Santoro) delivers the fatal blow to Jets kingpin Riff (Chris Evans) as helpless Tony (Ben Barnes) bears witness. By the end of the scene, Bernardo is on the pavement, killed by Tony. And so the musical’s male romantic lead is now a killer, which is part of what makes West Side Story revolutionary.


THE END
After a Shark flunky named Chino rubs out Tony, Maria (Camilla Belle) mourns alone at the grim murder scene, in the film’s final image.

4 comments:

Kristen said...

AMAZING!

Maryann said...

why haven't we watched this together before? That needs to be remedied, STAT.

Allie said...

EH, I feel like Camilla Belle is so overrated. But I loooooove when V Fair does extravagant photo shoots.

Kj said...

Thank you for posting these. So spectacular.

Also want to make a note that "10,000 BC" or whatever is an odd random movie in Camilla Belle's impressive emerging filmography of smart, independent films. "Jack & Rose" and "Push" are two examples. She's gonna be a keeper.