“I Feel Pretty” is probably my least favorite West Side Story song — to me it feels overly jubilant and forced — but I’ve never minded Sondheim’s engagingly witty lyrics. This is precisely what Sondheim dislikes. Decades back he told Diane Sawyer that Maria, a Puerto Rican “street” girl, would never say “it’s alarming how charming I feel.” Sondheim wrote this lyric, he said, because he was young and showing off. Maria, he maintained, “should speak in street poetry, not in literary poetry.”
There is obviously sound artistic reasoning behind this viewpoint. It’s dishonest and phony for a young, minimally educated Puerto Rican immigrant to express herself in the lyrical manner of 27 year-old Sondheim, a sharp, well-educated Jewish sophisticate who grew up in the San Remo. I get it.
But I’ve never minded the affectation because I vastly prefer to live and reflect in the mind of someone like Sondheim, because he’s clever and urbane knows a thing or two. There’s an artful way to write dialogue (and lyrics) for under-educated characters with somewhat limited vocabularies, and it’s certainly more authentic to do this. But I’ve never minded and in fact have always enjoyed the fantasy notion that characters who don’t know much could somehow speak from a wise and cultured perspective.
What I’m saying, I guess, is that given a choice between hanging with (a) an unusually perceptive and eloquent character who doesn’t talk like he/she would in real life and (b) an inarticulate, primitive-minded boob, I prefer the former. Happily. Because I’ve never liked being stuck in the minds of people who don’t have much of a clue.
In On The Waterfront Marlon Brando‘s Terry Malloy is a rugged, simple-minded fellow with a less-than-worldly of things, but screenwriter Budd Schulberg had him speak with a certain abbreviated, side-angle, world-weary eloquence that really works in certain scenes. When Malloy begs Eva Marie Saint‘s Edie not to leave the saloon in which they’ve been sitting and talking, he says “please don’t…I got my whole life to drink.” That’s an Iceman Cometh line, and hardly one that a lunky longshoreman and an ex-boxer would cough up. But Schulberg would, and it’s beautiful moment despite the unreality.
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to name characters in well-regarded films who seem (a) wiser and more articulate than they probably would be in real life but in an acceptable, agreeable way, and (b) are overly wise and sophisticated and self-aware, to the detriment of the film.
I’m presuming that “I Feel Pretty” will be included in Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming film version of West Side Story, and that the rubes will be fine with the alarming charm of it all.