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Viewer Guide: “West Side Story” and “Miss Stevens”

May 24, 2023 | Richard Peña


West Side Story (1961).

Tonight’s double feature begins with West Side Story, the original 1961 movie adaptation of the classic Broadway musical, co-directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.

Adapted from the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway show, with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the first film version of West Side Story —much like its stage predecessor—expanded the dramatic boundaries of what had been possible in a movie musical. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story famously updates Shakespeare’s timeless tale of young lovers torn apart by their feuding families to the gang warfare of New York City’s mean streets, where the white ethnic “Jets” clash with the Puerto Rican “Sharks” over the crumbling slum turf of Manhattan’s west side. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood star as Tony and Maria, the teenaged lovers whose star-crossed romance leads them to ignore the racial boundaries that are strictly enforced by Tony’s friend and Jets-leader Riff, played by Russ Tamblyn, and Maria’s older brother and Sharks-leader Bernardo, played in an Oscar-winning performance by George Chakiris. Although Tony is trying to leave behind his days with the Jets, convinced that “something’s coming” that will change his life, little does he know that it will arrive in the form of Maria at a dance at the gym. Despite the vehement objections of Bernardo and the warnings of his girlfriend Anita—another Oscar-winning performance, by Rita Moreno—Maria knows she must follow Tony to a better place where love, not hate, will determine the couple’s destiny.

The movie adaptation of West Side Story was the biggest box office hit of 1961, winning ten Oscars including Best Picture with historic wins for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris for Supporting Actress and Actor. Yet such a triumphant outcome was far from certain after a difficult production. To recreate the Broadway show’s groundbreaking impact on screen, executive producers Harold and Walter Mirisch hired original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins; however, given Robbins’ inexperience directing films, the Mirisch brothers also hired veteran director Robert Wise to handle the dramatic scenes. After discussing major stars ranging from Marlon Brando to Elvis Presley to play Tony, the creative team opted to cast the relatively unknown Richard Beymer in the role; casting Maria proved to be more complicated, with Natalie Wood hired after filming had already begun. As the sole marquee star, Wood was insecure about the project—which required her to wear skin-darkening makeup in keeping with the era’s practice of casting white stars to play persons of color. Wood also had no rapport with her co-star Richard Beymer or director Robert Wise, but conversely, despite Robbins’ reputation as a demanding perfectionist, Wood bonded with him during their 16-hour rehearsal days.

Some of the New York location shooting took place in Manhattan’s San Juan Hill neighborhood as it was being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center—a controversial fact of New York City’s urban renewal that Steven Spielberg incorporated into the plot of his 2021 remake. Yet as filming continued, the production soon fell drastically behind schedule largely due to Robbins’ insistence on endless retakes. After the dance sequences were filmed or fully rehearsed, the Mirisch brothers made the radical decision to fire Robbins in mid-shoot in hopes of getting back on schedule, prompting Natalie Wood to consider walking off the production as well. Wood’s unhappiness would only deepen further when her song vocals were eventually post-dubbed by ghost singer Marni Nixon. Nonetheless, Robbins remained in contact with Robert Wise throughout editing, and ultimately received a special Academy Award for choreography as well as sharing the Oscar for Best Director. Yet all the awards and glories couldn’t rid Robbins of his negative feelings about working on the film; it was rumored that he actually kept his two Oscars in the basement of his home.



Miss Stevens (2016)

This week’s double feature continues with Miss Stevens, a 2016 comedy drama marking the directorial debut of Julia Hart.  

Lily Rabe stars as Rachel Stevens, a Los Angeles-area high school English teacher; just ten years older than her students, Rachel doesn’t seem quite sure how to play the role of “Miss Stevens” yet for her class, struggling to find the right balance between being an authority figure and a hip big sister for the impressionable teenagers under her instruction. And behind the façade of Miss Stevens, Rachel is also masking the lingering Grief she’s feeling from the death of her mother the year before, an actress who gave up her career to become a single Mom. With the art of performance being a constant in her life, it’s a natural fit when Rachel is asked to chaperone a trio of drama students to a weekend acting competition, an excursion organized by the hyper-efficient Margot, played by Lili Reinhart. Also joining the road trip is Sam, a gay student played by Anthony Quintal, and Billy, a promising actor played by Timothée Chalamet, whose budding talent is clouded by a behavioral disorder that requires both monitoring and medication. And to add to Rachel’s growing unease, Billy also seems to take an overly keen interest in the adrift young woman he can detect behind the Miss Stevens he sees in class.  

Also featured are Oscar Nunez as Rachel’s high school principal, and Rob Huebel as a conference attendee on the prowl.  

Writer-director Julia Hart was inspired to write her script by her years as an English teacher. Although not telling an autobiographical story, Hart wanted to dramatize the student-teacher relationship outside the classroom, when students finally recognize their teachers as three-dimensional people who can help them take their first steps into “the real world” of adult life. Elliot Page was originally announced to direct Miss Stevens with Anna Faris playing the title role, but when Page became unavailable Hart took over directorial duties. Co-written and produced with her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, Hart’s other film collaborations with Horowitz include Fast Color, I’m Your Woman, Stargirl and its sequel Hollywood Stargirl. The daughter of actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, Lily Rabe’s many film and television credits include various roles over ten seasons of American Horror Story. Lili Reinhart appeared in six seasons of the “Archie” comics-inspired Riverdale series, and Timothée Chalamet’s next film following Miss Stevens was his career-making and Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me By Your Name.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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