I watched the 1961 movie of West Side Story ahead of the release of Steven Spielberg’s new version (in theatres 26 December) and here are my thoughts …
There’s no denying that the 1961 movie, starring Natalie Wood, is a classic. For those not in the know, it’s the tragic romance of Puerto Rican Maria (Natalie Wood) and Polish-American Tony (Richard Beymer). It features brilliant performances and dazzling choreography, breaks your heart with every viewing, and is packed with earworms. But, watched through a 21st century lens, it has an uncomfortable resonance or two.
For starters, Natalie Wood is not Latina. She wears brown-face makeup and sports a well-coached accent. Greek-American actor George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, was similarly made up, and even Latina actor Rita Moreno (Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita) was required to darken her skin. In 2021, this doesn’t happen. In 1961, it was probably inevitable.
Likewise some of the dialogue around gender is casually derogatory. My guess is that this will be gone in the new version, unless it’s purposely used to make a point about society in the 1950s. Spielberg’s West Side Story, based on the 1957 stage musical rather than the 1961 movie, won’t be a carbon copy of the Natalie Wood version. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has introduced new dialogue, given at least one song to a different character, and the production includes two genious moments of casting.
First off, Rita Moreno, who was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar for her role as Anita, returns as a new character Valentina, a reimagining of Tony’s drug store boss Doc. And non-binary actor Ezra/Iris Menas in the role of Anybodys, the ‘tomboy’ teenage girl who has been begging to join the Irish-Polish-American Jet gang since 1957.
West Side Story was among the first mainstream musicals to centre social and political issues so this contemporary take seems on the money. Tony Kushner has commented that it’s a mistake to compare West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet, in that the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s play are indistinguishable. ‘That’s part of the horror. Nobody knows why this murderous rage is destroying Verona.’
Kushner notes that the original creators of West Side Story ‘were very progressive. They didn’t think the Jets, who are anti-Puerto Rican and xenophobic and racist, were the same as the Sharks, who are struggling to find a place in New York, in the economy and in American society. In West Side Story, there’s a villain — racism and xenophobia. And poverty. And we wanted to really dig in and make that even clearer than it was in the original.’
Fear not, the new movie still looks like enormous fun, with 1950s frocks swirling in dance scenes, astonishing New York streetscapes, and menacing gang members … and a timeless love story. BYO tissues.