When a remake of West Side Story was announced, many people questioned the need for its existence. Unconvinced frowns eventually gave way to reluctant nods when the name Steven Spielberg was attached to this ad. When the film was finally released, much of the skepticism evaporated as Spielberg’s retelling of the classic story justified its existence with beautifully choreographed numbers and plenty of bold changes to the material. Among those changes was a brand new character for Rita Morenothe iconic actress who played Anita in the original 1961 film directed by Robert Sage and Jerome Robbins. In Spielberg’s film, Moreno plays Valentina, the Hispanic widow of Doc, the owner of the eponymous drug store who was a close friend of the Jets. As screenwriter Tony Kushner gives Moreno a new purpose in the film as Valentina, her mixed-race marriage and her relationship with Tony (Ansel Elgort) deepen the film’s racial commentary without ever overshadowing Ariana Debosethe new interpretation of Anita.
It would have been very easy for Spielberg and Kushner to play it safe by rehabilitating West Side Story. No one would blame them for feeling overwhelmed with the daunting task of breathing new life into a film that many already consider perfect (except for the brownface of course). And in fact, the genesis of Valentina does not come from Kushner or Spielberg. The idea was presented to Kushner by his wife, author Mark Harris, during a conversation about Doc’s role in the story. Along with this introduction to Valentina, Kushner and Spielberg make other changes that prove they haven’t been shy about taking on the challenge. The film sees a newly set location for the Territory Battle as well as all-new takes for songs like “Cool” and “Somewhere.” In the case of “Cool,” what was once a unison call among the Jets is now a plea from Tony to end the senseless violence. As for “Somewhere,” none of the lyrics are changed, but the song gains a poignant new rendition as Valentina is given the song to sing.
Beyond the initial impact of hearing 90-year-old Moreno sing one of the most moving songs ever written, a woman from an intermarriage singing Hopeful Lovers turns the song into a lament. Valentina is fully aware of the likelihood of violence stemming from Tony and Maria (Rachel Zegler) forbidden love, and his opportunity to sing “Somewhere” expresses that gloom as a longing for a more tolerable future. That the film’s racial tension remains so potent 60 years after the original’s release is distressing in itself, and Kushner and Spielberg seize the opportunity to revive these themes for all their emotional value.
Beyond the film’s story, Moreno’s new role also carries a weight of personal significance for the actor. Another movie update sees Valentina stopping the Jets’ attack on Anita. In the original film, Doc is the one who comes to Anita’s rescue upon seeing the assault. In Spielberg’s film, Valentina takes on this role and due to her position as an older woman within this band of boys, there is a motherly sense of disappointment that Valentina expresses as she chastises the boys she has. seen growing up. Additionally, Moreno has spoken extensively about her own trauma filming that scene in the original film as well as her experience of sexual harassment as a young woman in Hollywood. By giving Valentina the opportunity to call the Jets onslaught, the film simultaneously gives Moreno the chance to deal with his own trauma, which Moreno seems happily ready to do. And since it was Moreno as Anita in the original film who was assaulted by the Jets, the opportunity for Moreno to step in and, in some degree, save himself from the attack is both empowering and heartbreaking.
Finally, there’s a new dynamic introduced between Tony and Valentina that wasn’t present between Tony and Doc in the original film. In both films, Tony takes a job stocking shelves for the pharmacy, but in the 1961 film, Doc comes to see Tony almost as a son. In Spielberg’s film, Valentina’s pharmacy serves as Tony’s home base, both physically and emotionally. It’s a place where he can safely express his newfound love, but it’s also a place where Valentina can teach him Spanish, so Tony can properly share that love with Maria. And while there’s certainly a parenting dynamic that Valentina has with Tony as well, it’s complicated by Valentina’s own history in a mixed-race relationship.
Due to Valentina’s successful marriage to Doc, she comes to embody a tangible future Tony longs to have with Maria. The emotional precedent of their marriage gives Tony hope that with his guidance, he and Maria might have a chance at success. Unfortunately for Tony, he’s unaware that he’s Maria’s Romeo to Juliet, which makes his aspirations all the more tragic when their doomed romance inevitably ends in violence. It doesn’t take very long for Spielberg’s latest iteration of West Side Story to prove its worth. Likewise, Moreno’s reintroduction as Valentina immediately springs to life and pushes the story in a new direction. There’s a reason these stories keep being told over and over again. There will always be someone who can come and shed new light on old material, breathe new life into an aging tale and, in Spielberg’s case, West Side Storycan elevate a film beyond perfection.
Not everyone may agree that every hardware change works. It’s clear that Spielberg is trying to balance each change so as not to overshadow his respect for the original. In particular, it’s a tall order to bring Rita Moreno back without impacting Ariana Debose’s Anita. But Kushner and Spielberg succeed. Every update that comes with Valentina’s inclusion in the story deepens the already dense material, and Debose’s incredible work comes out miraculously unblemished at the same time. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that Valentina is the best alteration in the film. Between the thematic significance of the story, the personal significance of Moreno, and the ambitious significance of Tony, Valentina’s deeply uplifting presence says a lot about the story.
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