Sixty years on, West Side Story still belongs to Anita (not Spielberg)

Image: Backstage.com

Over the past month, I’ve had the thrill of seeing both West Side Stories, director Robert Wise’s 1961 version and Steven Spielberg’s recent remake, within days of each other at a cinema.

They’re both, on first glance, very different. And so they should be. Seven decades removed you would hope there’d have been enough positive change for this story to be seen anew.

But is Spielberg’s remake worth the hype it’s getting? Bluntly: no.

If anything, the industrial-scale smoke being blown up the iconic director’s aperture is just adding to this musical’s baggage. And West Side Story has a lot of baggage.

Based on Romeo and Juliet, it comes with the historic understanding Shakespeare deliberately made his female lead 13 despite her being older in the source material.

Shakespeare’s teen romance had been done to death by the 1950’s when four white men found a newspaper article about interracial gang violence in New York.

Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins decided racial exploitation was just the update the Bard’s old chestnut needed.

They then wrote a love story in which the two most relatable characters were Puerto Rican women. Seven decades ago to be sure but “it was a different generation” is not enough to disguise the misogyny and the white privilege involved in their choices.

Bernstein’s score has become an identity of its own over the decades. But its white musical tropes laid down a glistening concrete runway over an entire culture’s expression. It will forever be identified with Puerto Rico. It shouldn’t be.

Choreographer Jerome Robbins then spent rehearsals gaslighting and bullying his cast. His young lead Larry Kert got nicknamed “faggot” while the Sharks and the Jets were ordered to keep away from each other. I’ve read this last spoken of in glowing terms in too many professional, acting analyses too many times. But Jerome Robbins its clear was a Weinstein-level sociopath empowered on an industrial scale because he got results.

The 1961 movie cast a white girl as its lead and painted her face to match her assumed identity. Its Bernado was a Greek-American man born in Ohio.

Rita Moreno | Sounding Out!
Rita Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Anita in 1961. Moreno, one of the few Puerto Ricans in the production, was accused of being racist when she questioned why her skin needed to be darkened with makeup. (Image: Soundstudiesblog.com)

As time has gone by, more and more focus has been placed on its sole redeeming element, the iconic Rita Moreno, in her Oscar-winning role as Anita. Her scenes with Maria are masterful as Moreno navigates responding to a white girl in heavy makeup putting on “Latino voice”. She makes it about the love story, between Maria and Tony and Anita and Bernado. This is how she conquers.

The romance is what has kept the ’61 movie’s sales persistent over the decades.

Richard Beymer is convincingly young, dashing, sweaty and in love with Maria. The young couple’s scenes together are passionate, tender, intimate and intense.

The other undeniable selling point is its inherent queerness.

Jerome Robbins choreography makes the pulsating bodies of its young hoodlums menacing yet irresistible. Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? The men in this movie are virile confections of high-waisted, tight pants and spotless-while-dancing, form-fitting shirts and immaculate hair. They’re the epitome of the image the world, by the 80’s, would immediately associate with a well-coiffed gay man.

This is where Spielberg’s version commits its first sin: gay erasure from a gay product.

Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and Laurents were gay men. In 1957 when the stage production opened, the sense of camp in the musical was far from well-known and light-years from mainstream. It lit fires and opened doors.

Even the first movie, with its timid aspirations to grittiness, had a small jewel of a scene where two members of the Jets hint at something deeper. Action and Baby John (think about those names) find each other in a back alley after a rumble and a death. The older boy nurtures the younger through his shock and emotion and their body language is inherently homo-erotic.

99 Things You Might Not Have Known About "Twin Peaks" | West side story,  Richard beymer, West side story 1961
Two of the obvious features of 1961’s West Side Story were its overt camp imagery and its homoerotic undertones. For decades they were seen as a liability. By 2021, it’s odd this perspective has gone unchallenged. Image: Pinterest

Symbolism was all gay Hollywood could afford in 1961. In 2021…

The focus for Spielberg’s production has been realism. Robbins’ choreography is gone and the dance is removed completely as a narrative device. For some people, this will be a mistake. For others, it will bring an otherwise gooey product to life. The dancing is still top-notch. Removed as a narrative force, its absence is notable. Spielberg replaces it with angrier boys and bigger imagery.

There are no gay men or even gay undertones in 2021’s West Side Story.

Non-binary actor Iris Menas plays a trans character named Anybodys. In 1961, Anybodys is couched as a tomboy. Watching Susan Oakes performance 60 years later is thrilling. Did Oakes know what trans was? Her performance burns and the mark it makes on the film is real. Menas is denied the same narrative arc, but as the last queer standing in the remake, their presence is beyond important.

The press for the film has been at pains to emphasise the casting and the consultation to bring the Latinx performers and their narratives to life. Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been brought in to interpret the score. His is some of the best work in the movie. Spielberg doesn’t know how to film a musical sequence that isn’t clipped fresh from the film cells of MGM’s heyday. If there are no lyrics, it’s underscoring. If there are lyrics, the camera must match their energy. Sometimes that’s enough.

The winner of all this is Ariana DeBose. Her Anita burns and pulses. Rachel Zegler is a beautifully sung and honestly expressed Maria. Ansel Elgort’s awkward Tony and a lack of intimacy and stillness in Spielberg’s blocking undo her love story. But her scenes with Anita are electrifying. DeBose deserves an Oscar and a lengthy career.

West Side Story Sneak Peek: Catch Snippets of 'Mambo' and 'America' From  the New Movie | Playbill
Broadway actress Ariana DeBose gives the strongest performance in 2021’s West Side Story and like her predecessor, Rita Moreno, legitimises the move with her presence. (Image: Playbill.com)

The boys couldn’t matter less. The Sharks and the Jets are grittier and desperate, victims of a city remorselessly casting them aside. They’re also still 20-somethings playing High Schoolers. It’s easier to feel sorry for them. No one will walk out transformed or in love.

The reason West Side Story gets resurrected on stage so often is obvious. It’s very good. For all its problems, it has a magnificent score and it tells a beautiful love story very well. It’s racism, its misogyny, its camp are all living issues that deserve to be openly addressed while they still can be in non-destructive ways.

White creatives invariably cock it up.

Spielberg has made a good movie. Not great, good. It tells its story capably and delivers emotional sucker punches in all the necessary places. Not least the glorious nostalgia of Rita Moreno, ninety years old and in command of every scene she occupies.

But sixty years on, West Side Story is sad proof very little in Hollywood (and not just Hollywood) has changed.

Spielberg has made West Side Story mostly because he wanted to and, as a powerful white man, he faced no barriers. The final result says nothing pressingly different than its predecessor. Despite its 21st century trappings of representation, it’s still a movie created (mostly) by white men about Puerto Rican women. Its longevity will stem almost solely from the spectacular performance given by Ariana DeBose as Anita.

Sixty years on, West Side Story is still a reminder of how much needs to change.

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