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Awards Profile 2020: Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ From 20th Century Studios

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Welcome to the 2020 Awards Profile series, where we talk about films coming to a theater near you in the coming year (at least at this time of writing). The series analyzes the films and their awards season potential, most notably for the Academy Awards, based on the talents attached, filmmakers involved, and story and source material. Monday through Friday until mid-May, AwardsCircuit will bring you a new and exciting project and discuss its chances for success. If you have a suggestion for a movie we should cover, include it in the comments section below. If you miss a film covered, click on the tag or category for Awards Profiles.”

FILM: “West Side Story”

DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Studios
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
PRODUCERS: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Kevin McCollum
WRITER: Tony Kushner
CAST: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno, Josh Andrés Rivera, Maddie Ziegler, Ben Cook, Curtiss Cook, Sean Harrison Jones, Ezra Menas, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Patrick Higgins, Carlos Sánchez Falú, Ana Isabelle, Julius Anthony Rubio, Sebastian Serra

SYNOPSIS: “An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds (IMDB).”

SCHEDULED RELEASE: December 18, 2020

POTENTIAL HIGHLIGHTS

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Ever since the “West Side Story” remake announcement, the world has been dying to see what happens when Spielberg meets Sondheim. This December, they will get their chance. Revisiting this romantic musical almost sixty years after Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 film version brought home 10 Academy Awards — including “Best Picture” — is certain to elicit nostalgia, excitement, and curiosity about what the most famous blockbuster director in the world can do with a genre completely new to him. Will the music be even more sensational, the choreography more elaborate, the stunning rooftop sequences soar to even greater heights? If there’s any director who can face the epic challenge of contemporary reinvention of modern Shakespeare (the story is loosely based on “Romeo and Juliet”), it’s Steven Spielberg. The Oscar-winning director has the mettle, experience, and visionary prowess to surpass these monolithic expectations.

Allaying fears about the project early on was the announcement of fresh talent with Broadway readiness. With the exception of “The Fault in Our Stars” heartthrob Ansel Elgort — who himself has yet to reveal his showtune chops to the moviegoer world — every major cast member is an unknown, triumphing over thousands to land the central roles that fans of Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s original 1957 musical cherish like family. Colombian-American actress Rachel Zegler plays the lead female role of Maria opposite onscreen romantic partner Elgort as Tony.

The central crew composed of rival gangs the Sharks and Jets are rounded out by “So You Think You Can Dance” alum Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, Mike Faist as Riff, and an extended cameo by the original Anita, Rita Moreno. The Puerto Rican thespian made history as the first Latin-American actress to take home a competitive Oscar. If there’s one common draw for film buffs of all generations, it’s seeing Moreno again, this time playing a female version of shop owner Doc (Ned Glass). All pundits and cinema enthusiasts will undoubtedly be holding their breath to see if Moreno is given enough character meat to make Oscar lightning strike twice.

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES

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With “Lincoln’s” Tony Kushner in the screenplay driver’s seat, theoretically very little should go wrong in the adaptation department. “West Side Story” was ahead of its time tackling racial divisions, police brutality and prejudice, and the struggles of immigrating to a city that is supposed to reflect American freedom and tolerance (though hopefully the new film version acknowledges Puerto Rico as being part of the United States this time). The biggest concern is that because these issues still persist today and remain more relevant than ever, “West Side Story” might remain comfortable staying in the past and going no deeper.

The appropriate Latinx representation is promising, but with Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights” coming out earlier in the year, Spielberg’s remake needs to engage in political and social commentary discourse of similar significance. The 2020 reboot’s biggest challenge is demonstrating how our current fight against adversity is not only similar to its 1950s Manhattan setting, but still ongoing. The greatest fear is Spielberg and Kushner getting so wrapped up in doing their idols justice on a purely aesthetic and lyrical level that they forget the underlying tragedy at the narrative’s romantic center. While “West Side Story” features some of the most energizing musical numbers ever, Spielberg should worry less about the movie being the next “La La Land,” and more about the reasons motivating a return to this material.

POTENTIAL AWARD CATEGORIES IN PLAY:

  • Motion Picture (Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Kevin McCollum)
  • Director (Steven Spielberg)
  • Actor in a Leading Role (Ansel Elgort)
  • Actress in a Leading Role (Rachel Zegler)
  • Actor in a Supporting Role (David Alvarez, Mike Faist)
  • Actress in a Supporting Role (Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno)
  • Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner)
  • Film Editing (Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar)
  • Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski)
  • Production Design (Adam Stockhausen)
  • Sound Editing (Brian Chumney)
  • Sound Mixing (Tod A. Maitland)
  • Hairstyling and Makeup (Kay Georgiou and Judy Chin)
  • Costume Design (Paul Tazewell)

POTENTIAL KEY NOTICES FROM OTHER GROUPS

  • Best Film (PGA Awards) — To win “Best Picture,” it is imperative “West Side Story” picks up this major accolade. The last musical to win Hollywood’s most coveted trophy, Rob Marshall’s “Chicago,” did so earning PGA approval going into the ceremony. It should be noted that “Moulin Rouge!” and “La La Land” were the other two most recent musical recipients of this honor even though they did not go all the way.
  • Best Comedy or Musical (Golden Globes) — Given that this about the only televised category recognizing the genre by name, “West Side Story” can pretty much wave goodbye its chances if it loses an easy slam-dunk here to Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights.”
  • Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical) (ACE Awards) — Even though “La La Land” won this but lost both the editing and “Best Picture” Oscars, triumphing here would still give “West Side Story” a major boost heading into the final stretch. Films that garner cinema’s highest accolade typically have a showing in editing. Spielberg’s remake needs to nail this tech respect early on to pave its way to victory.

Will Steven Spielberg’s anticipated remake of “West Side Story” make its 1961 predecessor proud? Could a miracle occur with two movies sharing the same name and story winning Best Picture? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Written by Joseph Braverman

My name is Joseph Braverman. I am 31 years old and a graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. I love watching and analyzing films and television shows. I live in Los Angeles, CA, enmeshing myself in the movie industry scene in any way possible. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @JBAwardsCircuit.

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