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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘West Side Story’ – Steven Spielberg’s version honors, updates the original

A scene from Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“You’re never alone”

“You’re…”

If, like me, you can finish that second line (“You’re never disconnected”), then, like me, you may have some trouble with the very idea that someone has remade “West Side Story.”

Even if that someone is Steven Spielberg.

The 1961 movie, which won a boatload of Oscars (including Best Picture), holds a kind of sacred place for those of us who love musicals. Plus, its use of New York was so iconic, so original that the clunkier parts (a hugely miscast Richard Beymer, an adorable but hardly Hispanic Natalie Wood, ‘50s “hip” dialogue – Dad-dio? – that hasn’t aged well) didn’t matter so much. Besides, there’s that score, that dancing, that George Chakiris, that Rita Moreno.

But…if someone’s going to mess with “West Side Story,” we’re lucky that someone is Spielberg.

Best Supporting Actress nominee Ariana DeBose dances up a storm in the 2021 remake of “West Side Story”

He is smitten with the original and even as he changes it, he honors it. His version is grittier, more overtly socially conscious. Sometimes, perhaps, a little too socially conscious, especially in its much-discussed casting (whites are white, Latinx are Latinx) and careful message-mongering. Still, he and co-adapter Tony Kushner have made a very strong movie.

As I think most of us know, “West Side Story” is an updated (as in the 1950s) take on “Romeo and Juliet,” with the Caucasian gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, replacing the feuding Montagues and Capulets. Things get complicated when Tony (Ansel Elgort), best pal of the Jets’ leader Riff (Mike Faist), and Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of the Sharks’ head honcho, Bernardo (David Alvarez), fall in love. In the film’s most celebrated image, the pair imitate Shakespeare’s balcony scene on a fire escape.

There is an essential thrill in the ’61 version that simply can’t be replicated. Like the lengthy dance prologue (a good deal more self-aware and prankish than in the new version).  And while Zegler has a freshness and authenticity Wood couldn’t hope to match, she doesn’t have Marni Nixon’s voice (Nixon was famous for dubbing everyone from Wood to Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”)

Movie poster of “West Side Story”

Elgort reminds us how disastrous Beymer was. Alvarez can’t, perhaps, match the feline charisma of Chakiris, but he’s quite good, as is Faist who has a feral presence that his predecessor Russ Tamblyn could never summon. And Ariana DeBose, who plays Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (and is on her way to an Oscar), seems blessed by the presence of the original Anita, Moreno, in the invented role of Valentina who owns the drugstore that’s somehow still standing among the rubble that is the rest of the west side.

Perhaps we didn’t need this “West Side Story,” but having it around is an unabashedly good thing. Watch this version. Watch the ’61 version. Catch it if your local theatre group stages it. Genius is genius is genius and “West Side Story” has genius in its bones.

Speaking of genius, the marvelous William Hurt died over the weekend at age 71. He gave unforgettable performances in a score of movies, including “Body Heat,” “Broadcast News,” “The Big Chill,” “Children of a Lesser God” and “A History of Violence.” He won an Oscar for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” I was lucky enough to see him on stage (a lot) when I lived in New York in the ‘70s. He was amazing even then. He’d be playing opposite someone like Jeff Daniels or Christopher Reeve, and you barely noticed them. Yes, he was that good.

 

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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