NEW YORK, NY.-
Few films have won more Oscars than the 1961 musical West Side Story, which claimed 10 trophies including best picture and a supporting-actress award for Rita Moreno.
Now, six decades later, might West Side Story and Moreno manage to pull off those same feats once again?
On paper, it seems preposterous to imagine that Steven Spielbergs new big-screen take on the material, in theaters Dec. 10, could win the top Oscar. Only one remake has ever been awarded best picture: Martin Scorseses The Departed (2006), adapted from the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs and no remake of a previous best-picture winner has even so much as been nominated in that Oscar category. (Cast members have said this isnt a remake but simply a new adaptation of the stage musical; moviegoers will still consider it a remake.)
But now, after a rapturously received premiere in New York City this week and a strong burst of initial reviews, Ive come to think that West Side Story can manage what was formerly impossible. Here are three reasons.
1. It feels like the biggest film in the race.
After the low-budget drama Nomadland swept last seasons muted Oscar ceremony, I think voters will be eager to crown a more traditional crowd-pleaser. Although films such as Belfast and King Richard certainly fit that bill, they cant hold a candle to the scale and grandeur of West Side Story: Simply put, this is the biggest contender that could actually win sorry, Dune and its very presence fills a power vacuum that had been lingering at the top of this race.
Spielberg has always exhibited a sense of musical timing in the way he blocks and stages action movies, but the 74-year-old has never tackled a feature-length song-and-dance film until now, and the results are impressive: Choreographed by Justin Peck and edited by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, this West Side Story marries old-school sweep to a new script by Tony Kushner that further contextualizes the storys themes of gentrification and racial strife.
This time, the dance battles between the gangs the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks bring violence out of the realm of the hypothetical, adding even more bloody stakes to the Romeo-and-Juliet romance of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Rachel Zegler), who hail from rival factions. And unlike the original film, which put several white actors in brownface, this take on West Side Story has more authentic casting and even allows María and the Jets to often converse in unsubtitled Spanish, a daring choice that works because the themes are so evident.
Its the best kind of remake, something that feels classic and refreshed at the same time. And it cant be underestimated just how good it feels to watch something so significant on the big screen. (Upon leaving my press screening, I heard one critic exult, That is a movie!)
2. The cast could score multiple nominations.
The 1961 version of West Side Story picked up both of the supporting Oscars in addition to Moreno, George Chakiris won for his performance as Sharks leader Bernardo and lead Natalie Wood would have almost certainly been in contention if it werent for her best-actress nomination that same year for Splendor in the Grass, as well as an Oscar rule that prohibits an actor from showing up twice in the same category.
Spielbergs version should be in the hunt for even more acting nominations than its predecessor. Rachel Zegler as Maria is an appealing newcomer and lovely singer, and Oscar voters love to push a fresh-faced ingenue into the best-actress race. In the supporting categories, Mike Faist as the Jets leader Riff makes a strong, flinty-eyed impression, while Broadway veteran (and So You Think You Can Dance alum) Ariana DeBose gets tons of showy material as Anita, including a new version of America staged in the streets that stands out as the movies centerpiece number.
But although DeBose is playing the role that won Moreno the Oscar in the original film, I still think its Morenos new performance that could trump all comers in the supporting-actress category. Here, she plays Valentina, a kindly widow who advises Tony while he stocks shelves at her pharmacy. She wants only the best for her young charge and works desperately to keep him on the straight and narrow, so when things start to go haywire, it has double the impact because you know how devastated Valentina will be.
Moreno is moving in the role, which is based on the drugstore owner Doc from the original film but radically reconceived and expanded by Spielberg and Kushner. (She even gets to sing Somewhere, a romantic duet now repurposed as a tear-jerking solo lament.) The still sprightly Moreno will celebrate her 90th birthday this month, and an Academy Award nod would make her Oscars oldest nominee ever. Can you imagine how the room would leap to its feet if she won? Voters will surely envision it.
3. It may be the nomination leader.
Robert Wises West Side Story scored 11 Oscar nominations and won all but one of those trophies, a haul exceeded only by Ben-Hur, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Titanic. Im not sure Spielbergs version can win as many Oscars, but the upside is there for it to receive as many or more nominations, which will almost certainly make the film this years nomination leader.
Nods in the picture and director categories are all but certain, and if Zegler, Faist, DeBose and Moreno all get in, thats six nominations before we even get into the below-the-line categories. There, expect recognition for Kushners adapted screenplay, the cinematography from Spielberg vet Janusz Kaminski, the large-scale production design and period costumes, and the films editing and sound.
Thats 12 potential nominations, one more than the original film got and more than Dune will probably manage unless the sci-fi film wildly overperforms. Becoming the nomination leader doesnt always guarantee wins just recently, Spielbergs Lincoln managed 12 nominations but won in only two categories but in an unusually diffuse Oscar year, it gives West Side Story the most heft.
Still, this awards season will be long (the ceremony isnt until the end of March) and the implosion of the Golden Globes deprives West Side Story of some easy televised wins in the musical-comedy categories along the way. There are also some simmering controversies that could boil over soon: Elgort was accused of sexual assault in 2020 (a charge he denies) and some cultural pundits are leery of reviving West Side Story at all, arguing that the story furthers racial stereotypes.
The film will also face an uphill battle at the box office, where older audiences are still hesitant to return to theaters and musicals rarely muster a strong opening weekend. (A miscalculated poster campaign, which sells desaturated grit instead of romance and entertainment, will hardly help matters.) And when it comes to Oscar voting, some academy members will always resist the idea of awarding a remake, which may help more original films (such as the end-of-the-world satire Dont Look Up) mount a counteroffensive.
I expect voters will find a lot to love in West Side Story. Its hard to compete not just with the 1961 original but with the very idea of that film, but Spielberg manages to pull off the magic trick. Like the swooning dreamer Tony, when I look out over the awards season to come, I cant help but feel that somethings coming. Something good.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times