Film pulls on heartstrings with more intensity than even the 1961 movie
Steve Spielberg should clear some space off a mantle or a shelf.
He’ll need it for the Oscar or Oscars he’ll win for “West Side Story,” which opened last weekend in theaters.
This writer is confident Mr. Spielberg will win for best director. There’s no doubt about that; the race won’t even be close.
Less certain is the best picture race with likely competition such as “Respect,” the brilliant biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, and possibly “House of Gucci,” which features a great performance by Lady Gaga. But again, Mr. Spielberg is the most likely producer to win best picture.
“House of Gucci” is a good movie trying to be great, but falling short because of some rough spots in directing, editing and acting.
“Respect” is a great movie that would win if not for “West Side Story,” which raised the bar for all filmmakers. (Another possible Oscar nominee is “Being The Ricardos,” starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Jr.)
With “West Side Story,” Mr. Spielberg has created a masterpiece. And he did it by knowing when to be inspired by the original 1961 film version, directed brilliantly by Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and when to veer off his own direction.
The result was a movie that pulls on heartstrings even harder than the 1961 movie. The audience at a local theater screening last weekend became so invested in the characters that the laughter during the light moments was maybe a little louder than expected and the crying during the tragic ending more audible.
Mr. Spielberg knew, of course, that he had a great story, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and featuring the great songs, everything from “Maria” to “Tonight” to “Somewhere,” by the late, legendary Leonard Bernstein and the great Stephen Sondheim, who recently died.
The story and time haven’t changed. It’s still the late 1950s/early 1960s in a low-income area in New York City, and two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are still fighting over their turf in the slums.
The Sharks consist of Puerto Ricans who came to New York, and they deal with prejudice every day. The Jets are descendants of European immigrants, and both gangs know that no matter how hard they climb, they’re stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Tony, who’s out of prison and was associated with the Jets, returns to society and ends up at a school dance where he falls in love with a young Puerto Rican woman, Maria. At the same time, the Jets and Sharks are planning for a fight to determine who will rule the neighborhood.
The original 1961 film version was groundbreaking in its time for its social commentary, as well as for its music and choreography. As mentioned previously, Mr. Spielberg knew when to let the 1961 film guide him.
But the director didn’t stop there. He and his crew built on it, raising the intensity in the dancing, adding power to the singing, having more fun with scenes such as the one for “I Feel Pretty” and taking some risks.
This writer didn’t expect the 1961 film’s version of the dancing and singing during “America” could be topped. But Mr. Spielberg imagined there was room for improvement, and the music, dancing, cinematography and editing are flawless.
This writer loves how Natalie Wood portrayed Maria in the 1961 film and didn’t expect to see a better performance. Here again, Mr. Spielberg, had more imagination and introduced the cinematic world to Rachel Zegler, who adds youthful idealism as Maria. Audiences can relate to her, a young woman with dreams of a better life and a better world.
Ansel Elgort stands out for his sincerity in his portrayal of Tony, matching the performance by Richard Beymer in the original film. At times, Mr. Beymer shows a depth that Mr. Elgort doesn’t reach. But Mr. Elgort has an earnestness that audiences can relate to, and it’s one of the reasons tears are flowing when people watch the new version.
Mr. Elgort’s Tony is the guy next door. He could be your buddy, and when he’s hurting, you’re hurting.
George Chakiris from the 1961 version is the better Bernardino because of his tough veneer, but David Alvarez in the 2021 version shows a refreshing layer of vulnerability.
Ariana DeBose brilliantly shows the spirit of Anita, Bernardino’s girlfriend, in the 2021 version, although the most memorable depiction of that character is by Rita Moreno in the 1961 film. Ms. DeBose puts great energy into the character, but no one can match Ms. Moreno.
And speaking of her… Ms. Moreno is in the 2021 version, playing a new character, Valentina, the widow to Doc, the store owner that the great character actor Ned Glass played in the 1961 version. No one could have topped Mr. Glass’ performance, so Mr. Spielberg was wise to have Ms. Moreno play Valentina, the store owner who employs Tony.
And Ms. Moreno, who’s one of the film’s executive producers, brings heart and magic to this film with her role, so much so that this writer teared up during her song in the movie.
Another actor to watch is Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino, who allows his character to develop gradually.
Tony Kushner’s screenplay takes the right turns at the right times to add some layers to a brilliant story, inspired by the stage play by Arthur Laurents.
If you haven’t yet, see “West Side Story.” Just be sure to bring tissue.