How 'West Side Story' could make (even more) Oscar history

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How 'West Side Story' could make (even more) Oscar history
After premiering this week, the remake has vaulted into contention, with nominations possible for the film, director Steven Spielberg, Rita Moreno and others.

by Kyle Buchanan

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 Spielberg’s 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 Scorsese’s “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 isn’t 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, I’ve 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 season’s 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 can’t 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 story’s 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.

It’s the best kind of remake, something that feels classic and refreshed at the same time. And it can’t 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 weren’t 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.

Spielberg’s 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 movie’s centerpiece number.

But although DeBose is playing the role that won Moreno the Oscar in the original film, I still think it’s Moreno’s 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 Oscar’s 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 Wise’s “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.” I’m not sure Spielberg’s 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 year’s nomination leader.

Nods in the picture and director categories are all but certain, and if Zegler, Faist, DeBose and Moreno all get in, that’s six nominations before we even get into the below-the-line categories. There, expect recognition for Kushner’s adapted screenplay, the cinematography from Spielberg vet Janusz Kaminski, the large-scale production design and period costumes, and the film’s editing and sound.

That’s 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 doesn’t always guarantee wins — just recently, Spielberg’s “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 isn’t 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 “Don’t Look Up”) mount a counteroffensive.

I expect voters will find a lot to love in “West Side Story.” It’s 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 can’t help but feel that something’s coming. Something good.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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