Worst Best Picture: Is West Side Story Better or Worse Than Crash?

west side story

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1961 winner West Side Story. Is it better than Crash?

Before watching it recently, almost all of my specific West Side Story knowledge came from this Curb Your Enthusiasm clip:

I’ve talked before about my relationship with musicals, and I don’t know how much there is to really say on the subject in general. There’s a handful still to go, but the quintessential American musical just might be this one. It has three songs in the American Film Institute’s top 100 songs in film list: “Somewhere,” “America,” and “Tonight.” The “Sharks vs. Jets” pairing has been mocked in every form of media that exists. West Side Story is ubiquitous, I just didn’t really know how much I knew. I’d heard versions of “America” and “I Feel Pretty” before, but I think I was only loosely aware of their source.

All of that makes for an interesting first viewing in 2014, on par with movies that you somewhat know but don’t really like Driving Miss Daisy and Rain Man. You have a basic understanding of what’s up in West Side Story even if you haven’t seen a moment of it: forbidden love, dance fighting, and race in New York City. You’d end up writing a pretty terrible book report without more details than that, but you really do have most of what you need there. I guess the Driving Miss Daisy version of that is “a black guy drives an old white lady around and they learn they’re not so different after all,” but that would leave out the all-time-terrible performance from Dan Aykroyd, which would be a mistake.

So what’s under the surface of the dance fighting in West Side Story? Well, while “America” may be a pretty straightforward critique of race in the United States, it is a solid update of the Romeo and Juliet class dynamic. There’s some interesting smarm in “Gee, Officer Krupke” about the nature of being latchkey kids and what contributes to “troubled youth.” While it’s primarily an update of Shakespeare, it’s also something a little bit more. I can’t really judge the singing and dancing — reviews of musicals often have strong takes on the matter, and I just don’t have an eye for it — but the storyline is compelling and the pacing carries the nearly three-hour epic better than expected. It won’t be something I revisit very often, but I found myself caught up in an update of a story that I already know. That’s an accomplishment, so my bold take on West Side Story is that it’s “an accomplishment.” Really going out on a limb here.

The Best Part: Probably “America,” but I was really interested in the reaction to the climactic fight. I don’t think it’s possible to “spoil” an update of Romeo and Juliet, but someone dies. It’s not supposed to get that bad, and the reaction of a bunch of kids — that they act like a bunch of kids for the first time — is eye-opening. It adds a touch of realism to a movie that’s mostly people jumping off stoops and throwing their arms wide to show how tough they are. These kids don’t want to be “tough” but they see no other option, and when it all goes bad they can’t handle it.

The Worst Part: Is it bad that it’s the love story itself for me? I don’t care about Tony and Maria. I get that it’s the construct around which the rest of the world turns, but I was never that interested in it. Even the absurd love story of Gigi drew me in more than Tony/Maria, but that’s probably a failing on my part.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Finally, a movie that is directly about race to compare with the worst of the worst. The difference between the two is that in West Side Story race is a complicating factor for an existing plot and in Crash the plot stands in the way of a discussion of race. Race feels a little inserted into West Side Story, so even when the complication of “white vs. Puerto Rican” does come up, it comes up alongside “Sharks vs. Jets.” The battle lines are drawn along racial lines, but sometimes it feels more like they’re talking about the gangs than about the difficulty of race in America. That complication leads to some conversations where everyone appears to be talking about one thing, but really it’s a discussion of race. Race informs the entire movie, which allows for a deeper viewing of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward musical. Crash never lets anything go unsaid. If two people of a different race have a conversation, they both bring it up, angrily, to the other one. The tension of race is something everyone understands without it being shouted at them, but Crash is not at all interested in subtleties.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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