I am generally not a fan of musicals, but West Side Story is one of the rare few that I enjoy. Considering its remake hit the theaters almost a year ago, it’s a little late to consider this week’s column a review. Nonetheless, as I proceed to share my impressions of a film that’s dated, you’ll notice a recurring phenomenon that unfortunately is not: wokeness.
The original, released in 1961, focused on two contemporary rival New York City gangs: the Jets, who were ‘American’ teenagers (i.e. of European descent), and the Sharks, composed of recently arrived Puerto Ricans. It’s a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but in this case it’s Tony and Maria.
Tony founded the Jets along with Riff, the current leader, but has since decided that violence is not the answer. Rather than join arms with his fellow Jets to fight the Sharks, he tries to make peace between the two groups. Things get complicated when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love at first sight, because Maria’s brother is Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, who’s every bit as hotheaded as Riff. I won’t spoil the ending, just in case there’s actually someone reading this who doesn’t know it.
It was particularly heartwarming to see Rita Moreno – who played Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend – in the original portray a different character, Valentina, 60 years later, at age 91. One of very few entertainers to win all four major awards – Academy (for her role as Anita), Emmy, Grammy, and Tony – Rita Moreno is a national treasure. And those were all bona fide wins, not honorary or lifetime achievement awards. Moreno’s touching and nostalgic appearance aside, wokeness crept in.
First, there was a policy that all the actors who play Puerto Rican characters must be of Hispanic descent themselves. That was a direct response to woke backlash to the fact that in the original version, non-Hispanic Natalie Wood portrayed Maria. Never mind that Wood was a highly accomplished actress and two-time Oscar nominee.
I’ve sat through many films in which actors completely butcher a foreign accent they’re trying to emulate, and so I’m all for choosing actors fluent in their characters’ languages. But that wasn’t the case with Wood; she played Maria splendidly.
The hypocrisy is evident when considering that Tony is of Polish descent, unlike either actor who portrayed him: Richard Beymer in 1961 and Ansel Elgort in 2021. Yet I don’t see any self-loathing white progressives clamoring against the cultural appropriation of Poles.
The cast member besides Moreno to win an Oscar in 1961 was George Chakiris – yes, he’s Greek – for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Bernardo. His successor for the 2021 version, David Alvarez, did a reasonably good job, but had nowhere near the fire Chakiris brought to it. But, hey, Alvarez is Hispanic.
Never mind that he’s a Canadian of Cuban descent playing a New York City Puerto Rican – apparently, it’s not cultural appropriation at all as long as you’re Hispanic.
Speaking of Greeks, there were others in the original: Gus Trikonis, who portrayed Indio, another Sharks gang member and thereby Puerto Rican, and his sister, Gina, who played Riff’s Italian-American girlfriend, Graziella. In 2021, Graziella was played by Latina actress/dancer Paloma Garcia-Lee. Again, cultural appropriation is evidently not an issue as long as the appropriator is Hispanic.
For other examples of cultural appropriation on the big screen that were smashing successes, we need look no further than the most famous Greek character in film history, Zorba, the star of Zorba the Greek (1964), which was nominated for seven Oscars and won three. Zorba, of course, was played masterfully by Anthony Quinn, you know, that Mexican guy whose full name was Manuel Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca.
Finally, there’s the character Anybodys, lovable in the original as a scrappy, hotheaded tomboy who wants to be a Jet. She is playfully teased by many of the Jets, as if she’s their annoying kid sister. But she’s clearly a girl. Not so in 2021: now, Anybodys is a trans-man, who’s just as tough but clearly more masculine-looking, and if referred to as female, throws fists wildly and screams, “I ain’t a girl!”
You see, in today’s woke world, there’s no such thing as a tomboy. All little girls who shun daintiness in favor of roughhousing obviously must be male souls trapped in female bodies and in desperate need of transitioning. Sure, some may feel that way, but the politically overcorrect crowd ignores the far more frequent instances of tomboys who grow up to be quintessentially feminine – like Marilyn Monroe and Britney Spears.
Anybodys was played in 2021 by iris ezra menas. That’s right, no capitalizing the name – that would be kowtowing to the oppressive practice of proper grammar. Menas is a trans-man (my guess, born Iris and now Ezra, but I could be wrong), who uses the pronouns zie and hir. What are those, you ask? Well, my research tells me that ‘zie’ is a substitute for the dastardly binary ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘hir’ is a clever little combo of ‘him’ and ‘her’. As for ‘they/them’ that’s soooo 2018 – get with the times.
The cynical reason for remaking films is that all the good ideas have already been used. A reason more dedicated to the craft is to present a different dimension. Well, director Steven Spielberg certainly did that with the new West Side Story. He trumpeted the woke message loudly and clearly. Unfortunately, the movie itself was weaker in just about every aspect; except for Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican who plays a Puerto Rican. See, sometimes it does work out.