What Spielberg Gets (Surprisingly) Right in West Side Story

I had serious reservations about the Steven Spielberg version of the film classic West Side Story.  Rumors of wokeness haunted the new movie from the first casting call through to its dismal opening weekend.  I expected to wince throughout, but Spielberg did something brave and unexpected.  He gave the Jets a rationale for their existence and their resistance.

The 1961 original did not.  As a 14-year-old living in a "transitional" neighborhood very much like the one the Jets and Sharks inhabited and not far away, I fully identified with the white gang, the Jets.  My friends, even my black friends, did as well.  Despite our affection for our homies, we had a grudging respect for the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.  Their guys were arguably cooler, their girls hotter.

Missed by liberal observers, then and now, is that vestigial urban whites saw Puerto Ricans, not as another "race," but as another ethnic group, no more alien than Italians were to Irish or Irish were to Germans in generations past.  Like Tony, we would definitely date their girls if they'd have us.  The absurd racial delineation for "Hispanics" would come later.

As much as I liked the original movie, however, it struck me even then as a confection.  The Jets were too soft, feckless, even, especially Tony, their legendary leader.  They seemed ungrounded, their defiance more cinematic than real.  Spielberg's critical revision was to root the new version in the real world of New York's West Side circa the late 1950s.  Much has been said about the "texture" he gave to the Puerto Rican characters, but he gave equal texture to the Jets.  That is what surprised me.  It would have been so easy in today's environment to portray them as Archie Bunkers in training, Proud Boy wannabes, but he chose not to.

As the film makes clear from the opening scenes, redevelopers were leveling whole West Side neighborhoods to make way for the Lincoln Center complex.  In fact, the producers of the original film used the vacated but as yet un-demolished buildings as a backdrop for the street scenes.  In this version, a wrecking ball seems to hover over every shot.  The Jets and Sharks are contesting for limited space in a shrinking universe.

In the Spielberg version, the Sharks have the sociological edge.  Despite the playfully ironic Sondheim lyrics — "Life is all right in America, If you're all-white in America" — the Puerto Ricans are the ones aspiring upward.  They are the ones dreaming of starting businesses and going to night school.  The Jets, as Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) bluntly reminds them, are the white mongrels left behind largely due to parental pathologies.  In any case, Schrank reminds both groups that they will all be squeezed out by gentrification.  Those who know the West Side know this to be true.

The movie, in fact, reinforced the theme of an embryonic book I have been noodling with, working title: Displaced: The Great, Unsung, Ethnic Diaspora.  In the proposal I note, "To this day, no one of note has written about the collapse of America's decaying cities from the perspective of the working-class ethnics who endured it.  Nor has been there been any serious account of the sad, unwelcome diaspora that followed."  Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner help fill that void.  The result is a much grittier, tougher, fairer picture than the original.

One of Spielberg's smartest moves was to toughen up the "Tony" character.  Unlike predecessor Richard Beymer, the Tony in the new version, Ansel Elgort, looks as though he could actually win a fight.  Spielberg gives Tony a reason not to engage — he just spent a year in prison for nearly killing a guy in a street brawl.  He fears his own rage as well as a return to prison.

Tall and smooth, Tony woos the enchanting Maria, Rachel Zegler, with conviction.  One can debate which movie handles the musical numbers more capably, but the romance works better in the Spielberg version in no small part because both actors sing their own songs.  Then, too, the bright-eyed Zegler was an unknown Hispanic 18-year-old when the movie was shot, not an established "gringa" movie star like Natalie Wood.

Spielberg's Riff, Mike Faist, is a revelation.  He seems edgy and self-destructive enough to have been an original Westie, the psychopathic Irish gang that was soon to terrorize the West Side.  Riff, the audience learns, has emotional problems grounded in a brutal upbringing.  He has no future.  Unlike the original's Russ Tamblyn, there is nothing cute about him.  Faist can also sing.

David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo, is no more Puerto Rican than the original's George Chakiris.  He is Cuban.  Zegler, for that matter, is half-Colombian and half–sundry white American.  I found weepy op-eds online from Puerto Rican girls despondent that none of their compatriots got the "Maria" role.  For all the talk of ethnic authenticity, of the three major Hispanic players, only Anita, Ariana DuBose, has any connection to Puerto Rico, and that through her absentee Puerto Rican father.  DuBose was raised by her white mother in North Carolina.

Alvarez lacks Chakiris's flash and style, but he credibly plays a boxer in the film and looks as though he could handle himself.  He is more a xenophobe than Tony or Riff, and the reason why is simple.  He fights for the one thing that has moved men to war since the beginning of time: women.  Given his motivation, he brings as much brutal energy to the climactic fight scene as Riff.

You know how the rumble turns out.  In the Spielberg version, you believe that it could actually have turned out that way. 

To learn more about Jack Cashill's most recent books, please see www.cashill.com.

Image: 20th Century Studios via YouTube.

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