Oscar Films

‘West Side Story’ Deserves Bigger Audience

It’s a great film, with seven Oscar nods but should have gotten eight.

By - Feb 16th, 2022 05:45 pm
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Six decades of children turning into teenagers turning into parents turning into grandparents. From family movie night at the local palatial palace for the Natalie Wood version of “West Side Story” (1961) then after a decade a TV perennial, then forgotten by movie palaces turning into multiplexes, then the pandemic comes along confusing movies with home streaming services, then teens preferring the video joys on their smart phones to ever going out to a movie with mom and dad — what changes in the entertainment habit! These shifts now greet the most successful moviemaker in history, director Steven Spielberg, for his re-thought remake of West Side Story.

Spielberg makes more money signing a deal than I could imagine in a lifetime, so he can afford to out wait an uncertain public as his $100 million outing has brought in to date only $37 million at the box office. Those figures will jump around March 2 when the movie-house-only decision gives way to Disney Plus and HBO Max.

But frankly I think it will be 20 years before Spielberg’s much better version matches the original box office or reputation. It is bothersome that the public is not rushing to the movie house. Maybe an Oscar win out of seven nominations will start the ball rolling. But Oscar and Hollywood have got to stop counting box office as some sign of quality or even proof of commercial longevity for a work like this. I think the 2021 version is deservedly here for the long haul.

One reason is respect for the original. You’ll find visual echoes of director Robert Wise such as the colors coming through windows panes. Choreographer Justin Peck pays constant homage to the other original director Jerome Robbins (yes, there were two) for the dance numbers – less finger snapping and fewer scoops to the ground but the same syncopated action, more synchronized ballet twirls, more lunging forward in groups, the same Robbins power and virile strength, even extended street dances with more people involved, including kids.

Where Wise started with high aerial views, Spielberg brings the story closer to the ground as wrecking balls skim the dilapidated turf where the Lincoln Center is going up in the 1950s. Oscar nominated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a Spielberg veteran, provides exceptional images without calling attention to how shrewdly his cameras have been placed, particularly noteworthy in the intimate singing scenes.

Spielberg has daringly changed “Cool” into a keep-away fight for a gun with extraordinary leaps. He has moved “I Feel Pretty” to provide irony after the rumble – it is performed by an unknowingly happy Maria and minimum wage Puerto Ricans (no subtitles needed) cleaning up Gimbel’s. The rumble draws Tony in with more brutality and psychological whiplash.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner has moments of brilliance. He has not thrown away Arthur Laurents’ Broadway book with its invented slang but he has augmented with powerful back-stories, clever changes in sequence, and extended dialogue face-offs that explain more deeply the friendship of Tony and Riff and clearly make Maria the aggressive one in her romance with Tony. Even Chino, Maria’s hulky boy friend who intends to shoot Tony, is fleshed out into a believable character by Josh Andrés Rivera.

Tony as actually sung and acted by Ansel Elgort is a remarkable improvement on the original. With a fine voice and smoldering Marlon Brando looks as he swings among the fire escapes, he approaches the role as a tall star-struck kid with a vicious past and the naïve belief he can charm anyone to like him – and then learns savagely that he can’t. The Riff of Mike Faist looks like an emaciated John Cassavetes but is frighteningly intense in his acting and dancing, while David Alvarez’s Bernardo is a snarling boxer eager to mix it up. The storyline now makes more of the main characters believable.

It will take several viewings for the other members of the Jets and the Sharks to take on the individuality the public bestowed on the originals, but Spielberg is making sure that each will have that sort of moment. The fight over turf and racism is more cutting in language with neighborhood adults added for humor and street shock (we no longer feel the youth gangs are aliens dropped from space).

Virtually all the Jets and Sharks have Broadway experience, and the combination of choreography and singing demands those skills. Leonard Bernstein’s music has never sounded better and Spielberg marries the music to the settings as intended in special ways I had not thought about when seeing the 1961 version.

The Anita of Ariana DeBose is Oscar nominated, delightfully smiling and swirling her skirt but also grimly dark and mature in the tragic scenes. She is being allowed to suffer and strike back in manners different than Rita Moreno as the first Anita, and that brings up an interesting Oscar exclusion.

TI had speculated the Oscars would not resist nominating both DeBose and Moreno, but they did. Moreno at 90 hardly needs any more honors but her natural depth should have been recognized. As Doc’s widow, Valentina, she plays a more central role in the story. A scene that could have been gimmicky – when Valentina teaches Tony Spanish – is not the overused movie device it sounds like. Quite touching as well is Moreno soloing on “Somewhere” after a sip of Puerto Rican rum.

Rachel Zegler was plucked not from Broadway but from 30,000 audition tapes to be Maria. Of course her face and eyes are luminous. More important her soprano is lovely especially in the higher range and her acting grows in firmness, capturing the innocence as well as the determination in important dialogue additions.

The surprise to me about the remake is that the power of the music is improved. It is not just better sound technology (also nominated for an Oscar), but the major difference in people actually singing the parts they are playing. There are no big celebrity names that require dubbing as was standard in 1961.

I know all about pre-recording and the like, and the studio has gone out of its way to describe how much was captured live. But either way it is amazingly more human and freeing for this A-list of Spielberg collaborators when Tony and Maria are actually singing and looking at each other, as opposed to imported voices like Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon in the original.

Nor is the movie a new plaything for people seeking those “Easter eggs,” the Spielberg touches in how the story is told, like the color red in “Schindler’s List” or the John Ford scene in “E.T.” The actual touches are in the craftsmen he hired and the way he keeps the camera moving among the players – and the way the story adds believability.

This is a fine film and audiences will discover it at their own pace. Of all the film makers today, Spielberg is the one of such high regard that he can wait patiently for that fickle audience to find him.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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