West Side Imposters

Although the singing voices are, for the most part, dubbed by unspecified vocal performers, the device is not noticeable and detracts not one whit from the beauty and eloquence of the songs.

Bosley Crowther, New York Times, Review of “West Side Story”, October 1961

Has the man lost his mind? Natalie Wood leans into Richard Beymer with all the earnest, perky, passion she can muster… and Marni Nixon’s voice comes out, operatic, soaring, obviously dubbed. Richard Beymer sings back to her, in the voice of Jimmy Bryant– less absurdly unconnected, but still silly– and all the passion drains away like runny soup. Am I the only crazy person out there who tries to imagine how that scene was actually shot– the actors actually bellowing out something– their lips are moving in sync to the voices– and sounding hilariously horrible? Do they make no sound at all or do they just sing badly?

I don’t know. It’s too stupid to contemplate, and I don’t care how many movies did it, or if any of them won Oscars (as “West Side Story” did.) It’s the steroids of the popular arts: fake everything. It’s dishonest, tacky, and stupid.

It’s like those scenes in a car with the fake background through the rear window, and the two people struggling over control of the wheel: you’re supposed to feel tension? Over what? The possibility that the projector might fall over exposing the studio wall behind it? Or those scenes in a boat, where you can almost picture the crew with buckets tossing water at them from the wings.

Why on earth would they not just learn to film these scenes in real cars on real roads? European directors, who couldn’t afford huge studio sets, did it all the time. Independent film-makers do it. Martin Scorcese usually does it.

It’s not as if I’m against technique– what they do now is a vast improvement. They either put the entire car on a trailer and tow it down the street while filming, or mount a camera on the door, or both. They even have a rear-engined “car” with a built in camera mount on the front where the engine would normally be. It’s actually driven by a stuntman in the back– the steering wheel is fake.

You know why they did the awful back-projection method back then? Because the producers of these movies are completely convinced that you and I don’t give a damn about authenticity. We are easily led. We don’t want look at the relatively imperfect face of a real singer, or hear the imperfect voice of the real actor. We want to be deceived.

I know I’m wrong. I know that the movie studios make a lot of money doing it their way and nobody seems to care how fake or phony the whole thing is.

I note a irony: audiences apparently were thrilled that some scenes from “West Side Story” were filmed on the real streets of Manhattan. They’re right– those scenes almost look fabulous (except that the vacant lots and streets were tidied up and lit perfectly for the shoot).

So why on earth would they care about that, if they don’t care about the voices?

There is a movie called “The New Land” about Swedish immigrants struggling to establish themselves in the 19th century west. It seems silly to even contemplate, but I feel a load of gratitude to the director for filming the outdoor scenes outdoors, the snowy scenes in real snow, and the indoor scenes inside a real cabin. It’s beautiful. It’s marvelous. It’s wondrous. It’s how films should be made.