The Battle for Best Picture

West Side Story: Why Steven Spielberg’s ill-fated musical should win the Oscar for Best Picture

The revered filmmaker’s lavish remake is everything a Best Picture winner is supposed to be. Don’t let its paltry box office returns fool you – this would be a worthy and crowd-pleasing recipient of the Academy’s top prize, writes Louis Chilton

<p>Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler shine as Tony and Maria in the rejuvenated ‘West Side Story'</p>

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler shine as Tony and Maria in the rejuvenated ‘West Side Story'

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There was a time, not so long ago, when a film like West Side Story would have taken the Oscars for everything they had. On paper, this was everything the Academy loves. Vibrant, classically handsome cinematography? Tick. A revered and unproblematic filmmaker in the twilight of his career? Tick. A general sense of dewy-eyed nostalgia for the Hollywood of yore? You’d better believe that’s a tick. It’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg’s glossy musical adaptation was widely tipped for Oscar glory before anyone had even seen a frame – and the final product doesn’t disappoint.

This new West Side Story is a near-impeccable work of adaptation. Taking the seminal Shakespeare-inflected musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and giving it one hell of a spit-shine, Spielberg improves on the canonised 1961 film version in pretty much every way. Aesthetically, it shines: from butter-smooth camera glides to expertly evocative close-ups. Musically, it’s got the edge – and not just because the actors do their own singing this time. There are also small but significant tweaks to modernise the material, including more authentic casting, and a sturdier, more contemporary grasp of the story’s socio-political underpinnings.

And yet: West Side Story enters Oscar night on Sunday some way adrift of the real Best Picture race, which has seemingly narrowed to a lopsided two-horse tug between The Power of the Dog and Coda. It’s feasible that Spielberg could scoop a third Best Director prize (after Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), but Jane Campion looks to have that category pretty much sewn up too. Only Ariana DeBose, luminescent as West Side Story’s Anita, looks set to take home gold in the Best Supporting Actress field; the film’s star-cross’d leads, Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort, were shockingly absent from the nominations.

How did such a deserving, quintessentially Oscargenic film find itself in such a position? For one thing, there’s the matter of Elgort, who was accused in 2020 – after West Side Story had wrapped filming – of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl in 2014 (Elgort denied the claim, stating that the pair had a “brief, legal and entirely consensual” relationship). For some viewers, Elgort’s presence in the film was an unwelcome one, and many reviews singled his performance out as lacking next to his universally praised co-stars – especially Zegler, DeBose, and Mike Faist, whose electric turn as the young hoodlum Riff is perhaps West Side Story’s secret weapon. But much of the criticism of Elgort’s performance feels harsh: his singing, at least, is first-rate.

Perhaps West Side Story suffered, too, from the burden of expectation. The film hit cinemas in December, over a year and a half into the pandemic. The box office had already started to show signs of recovery (with the relative success of Dune), which would be affirmed with the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home just days later. But this was supposed to be a film that would get serious, cinema-going adults back into theatres: a middlebrow crowdpleaser from a filmmaker who has enjoyed almost nothing but box office hits for the better part of five decades. Then it flopped. Ultimately, it is this that is going to trouble many cinema-lovers the most. Not the idea that West Side Story is being unjustly overlooked for awards – approval-by-committee can only get you so far, after all – but the growing sense that the public is losing its appetite for anything but action-packed CGI tentpole fare at the cinema. If a film as exuberant and appealing as this can’t draw a crowd any more, what hope is there for the rest?

In this sense, West Side Story winning Best Picture would be little more than a consolation prize. Spielberg’s cabinets aren’t wanting for trophies; God knows we aren’t gasping for another “love letter to Hollywood”. But it would be a worthy winner nonetheless – a late-career masterpiece from one of the medium’s true masters. To let it simply pass through unacknowledged would be a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet.

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