Entertainment

Oscars 2022: Why West Side Story deserved the Oscar for Best Picture

There was a time, not so long ago, when a movie like Westside Story would have taken the oscars for everything they had. On paper, that was everything the academy loves. Lively, classically beautiful cinematography? Tick. A revered and unproblematic filmmaker in the twilight of his career? Tick. A general feeling of dewy nostalgia for the Hollywood of yesteryear? You’d better believe that’s a tick. It’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg’s glossy musical adaptation was widely touted for Oscar glory before anyone had even seen a frame – and the end product doesn’t disappoint.

This new one Westside Story is an almost flawless adaptation work. Spielberg takes the groundbreaking Shakespeare-inspired musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and gives it a hell of a touch of glitz. Spielberg improves on the canonized 1961 film version in pretty much every way. It shines aesthetically: from butter-soft tracking shots to skilfully impressive close-ups. Musically, it’s one step ahead – and not just because the actors are singing themselves this time. There are also small but significant tweaks to modernize the material, including a more authentic cast and a more solid, contemporary understanding of the story’s socio-political underpinnings.

And yet: Westside Story kicks in a little off Oscar night on Sunday real Best picture race, which appears to have narrowed to a crooked two-horse tug in between The power of the dog and coda. It’s conceivable that Spielberg could win a third prize for best director (after Schindlers List and The soldier James Ryan), but Jane Campion seems to have sewn this category up pretty well too. Just Ariana DeBose, shining like Westside Story‘s Anita, who is expected to take home gold in the Best Supporting Actress field; the film’s prominent leads, Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort, were shockingly absent from the nominations.

How could a well-deserved, thoroughly Oscar-winning film find itself in such a position? First, there is the matter of Elgort, who was indicted in 2020 – after Westside Story had wrapped up filming – of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl in 2014 (Elgort denied the allegation, stating that the couple had a “brief, legal and fully consensual” relationship). For some viewers, Elgort’s presence in the film was unwelcome, and many reviews flagged his performance as lacking alongside his widely acclaimed co-stars — notably Zegler, DeBose, and Mike Faist, whose electric turn as a young hoodlum is Riff, perhaps Westside Story‘s secret weapon. But much of the criticism of Elgort’s performance feels harsh: His singing, at the very least, is top-notch.

Maybe Westside Story also suffered from the burden of expectation. The film hit theaters in December, more than a year and a half after the pandemic began. The box office was already showing signs of recovery (with the relative success of dune), which would be confirmed with the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home only days later. But this was to be a film that would bring serious, movie-going adults back to theaters: a mid-range crowd pleaser from a filmmaker who’s enjoyed almost nothing but box-office hits for the better part of five decades. Then it flopped. Ultimately, this is what will worry many cinema lovers the most. Not the idea that Westside Story is unfairly overlooked at awards – after all, board approval only gets so far – but the growing feeling that audiences are losing interest in anything but action-packed CGI magic fare in the cinema. If such an exuberant and engaging film can no longer draw an audience, what hope is there for the rest?

In this sense, Westside Story Winning Best Picture would be little more than a consolation prize. There is no shortage of trophies in Spielberg’s cupboards; God knows we’re not snapping at another “love letter to Hollywood.” But it would still be a worthy winner – a late-career masterpiece from one of the medium’s true masters. To just let it pass unnoticed would be a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet.

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/west-side-story-oscars-best-picture-b2042141.html Oscars 2022: Why West Side Story deserved the Oscar for Best Picture

JOE HERNANDEZ

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