Saturday, October 13, 2018

West Side Story (1961)

Dedicated to the memory of my darling Vanessa Marquez (it was her favourite musical besides The Wizard of Oz)

Among the most popular and critically acclaimed movie musicals to emerge from the Sixties is West Side Story (1961). Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, it made $44.1 million at the box office and won ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture). To this day it remains the musical to win the most Oscars.

For those unfamiliar with West Side Story, it was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It centres on  two warring gangs, the Jets (a gang composed of whites) and the Sharks (a gang composed of Puerto Ricans). Tony (played by Richard Beymer) is a former Jet who falls in love with Maria (played by Natalie Wood with her singing voice provided by Marni Nixon), the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks.

The book for the play West Side Story was written by Arthur Laurents, with the music written by famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. It was in 1947 that choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about a collaboration that would update Romeo and Juliet to modern times. Initially the conflict would have been between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Arthur Laurents wrote his first draft of the script, which he titled East Side Story. It was afterwards that the three men realised that it would be little more than a musical exploration of themes that had been explored in countless plays before, most notably Abie's Irish Rose. The project was then shelved for years.

It was in the mid-Fifties that Arthur Laurents was hired to write a remake of The Painted Veil (1934). At the same time Leonard Bernstein was conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The two men met at the Bevelry Hills Hotel. Their conversation eventually turned to the phenomenon  of juvenile youth gangs, then a popular topic in various news outlets. It was Leonard Bernstein who suggested that they rework East Side Story so that it was set in Los Angeles, with Chicano youth gangs at the centre of the conflict. Arthur Laurents felt he was more familiar with Puerto Ricans and Harlem, so the story would be set in New York City and would centre on a conflict between a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang. The two men contacted Jerome Robbins and what would soon become West Side Story was in development.

West Side Story opened on September 27 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It received largely positive reviews. It also won the Tony Awards for Best Choreographer for Jerome Robbins and Best Scenic Designer for Oliver Smith. It was nominated for Best Musical, but lost to the juggernaut that was The Music Man.

Given the success of West Side Story, it was inevitable that it would be adapted as a motion picture. Robert Wise, the former film editor who had directed such films as The Body Snatcher (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), was hired to direct the feature film adaptation. Robert Wise had no experience directing musicals, so Jerome Robbins was retained on the project to direct the musical sequences. The leads from the Broadway musical, Larry Kent and Carol Lawrence, were deemed by the producers to be too old to play teenagers, so they were not considered for the parts they had originated on stage. It was also decided to cast actors who were not well known, although there would be two exceptions. While Natalie Wood was initially not considered because she was too famous, she was cast in the role of Maria after Ina Balin and Barbara Luna had been considered. Rita Moreno, who was already somewhat familiar to movie audiences, was cast as Anita.

The rest of the major cast was made up of actors who were not yet well-known. Richard Beymer was cast as Tony. He had only made a few films prior to West Side Story, including The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Russ Tamblyn was cast as Riff, leader of the Jets. He had been a child actor, but as an adult had played primarily supporting roles in films starring older actors. Mr. Tamblyn's singing voice was provided by Tucker Smith. George Chakris had played Riff in the London production of West Side Story, but for the film he was cast as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

West Side Story proved to be smash hit at the box office. In fact, it was the no. 1 movie of the year in the United States. And as mentioned earlier, it won a number of Oscars. In addition to Best Picture, it also won Best Director for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Best Supporting Actor for George Chakris, and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno. Today it is considered a classic and has a 94% rating at the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

I believe I first saw West Side Story when I was in second grade, and I have loved the film ever since. That having been said, I do think it has some flaws. The one that sticks in my mind is the casting. Out of the major cast, only Rita Moreno is actually Puerto Rican. While I adore Natalie Wood and she does well as Maria, to a degree she seems incongruous with the role she is playing. Perhaps more so than any other actor in the cast, it is obvious that she is not a Latina. It was years ago that I developed my own backstory for Maria, in which she was left as an infant on the Nunez doorstep by a Russian family who could not afford to keep her...

Another problem I have with West Side Story is the song "America". Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898. Since 1917 all Puerto Ricans born after April 25 1898 have had United States citizenship. It then seems odd for Puerto Ricans to be singing about America when they are part of the United States, even if Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state. Beyond the fact that Puerto Rico is technically already part of America (at least if one is using "America" to refer to the United States), the lyrics to "America" seem to me to be somewhat insulting towards Puerto Rico. While I have never been to Puerto Rico, from what I have seen it is beautiful (at least before Hurricane Maria), so I don't think the lyric "Puerto Rico, you ugly island" really fits. Similarly, Puerto Rico has never been plagued by disease any more than most states in the U.S. have been. The lyric "Island of tropic diseases" also does not seem applicable. Oddly enough, as far as I know the song "America" has never been a source of controversy, although I find it a little offensive myself.

That having been said, the casting and the song "America" are the only real problems I have with West Side Story. The cast, whether they are Puerto Rican or not, give good performances over all. The standout for me has always been Rita Moreno as Anita. As played by Miss Moreno, Anita is strong-willed and takes nonsense from no one. She is also sexy and sultry (which explains why I have had a crush on Rita Moreno for most of my life...). Richard Beymer is also impressive as Tony, the Romeo in this variation of Romeo and Juliet, bringing out the character's idealism. George Chakris also gives a good performance as the hot-headed Bernardo, who seems to be the Tybalt of West Side Story.

West Side Story also benefits from good direction, particularly when it comes to its musical scenes. Jerome Robbins truly earned his Academy Award for Best Director (shared with Robert Wise). That having been said, the film would not be particularly easy for Jerome Robbins to make. He came into conflict with screenwriter Ernest Lehman over how the screenwriter had utilised the musical's songs,  moving them in their place in the plot and even putting some of them in different settings. Jerome Robbins did not particularly get along with some of his other co-workers either, wanting everything in the film exactly as it had been on stage.

Another asset of West Side Story is the cinematography of Daniel L. Fapp, for which he won an Oscar. Largely shot on location in New York City, West Side Story is an incredible looking film.

Both a box office hit and a critically acclaimed film upon its release, West Side Story has since become regarded as a classic. In 1997 it was selected for the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute ranked it at no. 2 in its list of AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals. The film remains wildly popular to this day, and there is little doubt to believe it won't continue to be so.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Google Kills Google+

It was this past Monday, October 8 2018, that Google announced it would be shutting down Google+. The service will continued to operate until August 2019 when it will close down. The reason that Google gave was a bug in one of Google+ People APIs that allowed apps access to information in users' profiles that the users had not marked as public. There was no evidence that any developers were even aware of the bug, let alone abused the API. As someone who has used Google+ from the beginning (I have been with it since the beta was only a few days old), I must say that I am sorely disappointed and I think Google is being very short-sighted.

Indeed, if Google+ has not been as successful as Google wished it had been, Google has no one to blame but themselves. The beta version of Google+ launched on June 28 2011 and proved to be very active. Indeed, to this day I have more followers on Google+ than any other social network (even Twitter). Google+ would continue to be a thriving social media platform for quite some time. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Google was intent on undermining the success of Google+.

Over time Google removed some very useful features from Google+. Ripples was a tool that allowed users to see how their posts had been reshared. It was quite useful for those concerned about the reach of their posts on Google+, and fun to play with for the rest of us. Hangouts on the Air was a live-streaming service. Unfortunately Google removed the feature from Google+ and gave it to YouTube. Even with these changes Google+ continued to be a very active and thriving social network.

Sadly, there would be changes in the management at Google+ and this would ultimately hurt G+ in the long run. Vic Gundotra, the executive who had been in charge of Google+ from its inception, left in 2014. It was on November 18 2015 that Google introduced "New Google+", which further deprived Google+ of much of its functionality. No longer did Google+ have an adequate means of curating one's own photos. I assume this was because Google wanted to force users to use Google Photos, which lacked many of the features Google+'s original photo management tools possessed. New Google+ also made it difficult to manage one's circles. For those who have never used Google+, circles are essentially lists into which users can organise people. Each circle has its own stream, making it easy to keep track of posts. Classic Google+ had a fairly efficient tool for organising circles, complete with a "drag-and-drop" interface. Sadly that sort of circle management was  missing from New Google+. Now Google+ continued to prosper as long as Classic Google+ was available. Unfortunately on January 24 2017 Google forced New Google+ on all its users, even though it was clear the majority of their users preferred Classic Google+.

I see New Google+ as the first nail in the coffin of Google+. Once New Google+ was forced upon users, many of them deserted the social network platform. Those of us who remained posted less often. Quite simply, New Google+ was so inferior to Classic Google+ that one has to wonder if Google wasn't intentionally trying to kill Google+ by that point.

While Google+ is not nearly as active as it once was, I still think Google is being short-sighted in killing it.Indeed, G+ could become much thriving and active if they simply restored much of Classic G+'s functionality. For that matter, I don't think they have thought out the impact it might have on their  other products. The only reason I ever used Google Photos was to post to Google+. Once Google+ goes dark I will no longer have any use for Google Photos. As a result, I will be uninstalling it from my phone. I have no reason to believe there aren't other users like me.

I will certainly miss Google+. Classic Google+ was my favourite social media platform. I enjoyed the conversations I had there, which were more sophisticated than most discussion on Twitter and especially on Facebook. I made many friends on G+, and many of them now number among the closest friends I have. What is more, my experience is not unique. I know of many G+ users who can say the same thing. To me that points to the possibility that Google+ could have been a real success if only Google had not constantly undermined its success.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Petition: Add Vanessa Marquez to the "In Memoriam" Segments of the SAG Awards And The Oscars Televised Shows

Yesterday the cast and crew of the classic film Stand and Deliver (1988) gathered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for a celebration of the life of Vanessa Marquez, best known for playing Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver and Nurse Wendy Goldman on the hit TV show ER. Most of the cast of Stand and Deliver were present. I would have liked to have been there myself, but I was unable to due to poverty and distance. That having been said, my heart was there. Indeed, Cheryl Hansen read the piece I wrote for Vanessa's memorial in South Pasadena last month.

In other news, someone has set up a petition to include Vanessa Marquez in the "In Memoriam" segments of the telecasts of the SAG Awards and the Oscars. I may be biased, but I believe that Vanessa is more than worthy of inclusion in both (as well as TCM Remembers, for that matter). Vanessa was an immensely talented actress who appeared in more than Stand and Deliver and ER. She appeared in several movies and several TV shows in the Nineties. At the time that she was playing Wendy on ER she was one of the few Latinas appearing regularly on American television. Because of her talent and her importance in the history of Latinos in film and television, I have to agree that Vanessa should be included in both the "In Memoriam" segments of the SAG Awards and the Academy Awards. You can sign the petition here.

As for myself, I am doing better than I was for much of September. That having been said, I still cry regularly, if not every day. And I sometimes feel overwhelmed by grief at having lost Vanessa and anger at what happened to her. I still miss Vanessa so terribly, but then I know that I will for the rest of my life. Our friends knew that we were very close, but I don't think many of them realised just how close. For my part, I loved Vanessa more than anyone else ever in my life, and I still do. I wanted so badly to move out there and be with her, but I never had the money. For the rest of my life, then, there will be this hole where she should be.

If you are one of Vanessa Marquez's many fans, then, please sign the petition for her to be included in the "In Memoriam" of the telecasts of the SAG Awards and the Oscars. Vanessa deserves to be remembered for her devotion to her art and for being the wonderful woman that she was. You would have my eternal gratitude.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The 80th Anniversary of The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It was eighty years ago today, on October 7 1938, that The Lady Vanishes released in the United Kingdom. The Lady Vanishes would prove significant for several reasons. First, it was the last film that Alfred Hitchcock would make in Britain until Under Capricorn in 1949. It is also numbered among by many as one of Hitchcock's best films. Second, it would mark the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), two cricket-obsessed characters who would appear in several subsequent films, as well as radio shows. With different actors in the roles, they would also be featured in their own 1985 BBC TV series, Charters and Caldicott. Third, along with Bank Holiday (1938), the film in which she appeared immediately prior to The Lady Vanishes, The Lady Vanishes propelled Margaret Lockwood to stardom in the United Kingdom. Even Hollywood took notice of Miss Lockwood, although they wasted her on a Shirley Temple film Susannah of the Mounties (1939) and the movie Rulers of the Sea (1939).

I wrote a detailed post on The Lady Vanishes several years ago. Rather than revisit old ground, I then recommend that you read that post.