When Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” screened for industry audiences in late November, Oscar pundits were rapturous but immediately worried: “It’s great, but could a remake
win best picture?”
The answer, of course, is yes. (Pundits like to either predict the Oscar outcome five months in advance or else predict dire scenarios, nothing in between.)
This year, there are some terrific remakes. They include, alphabetically, “CODA,” “Cyrano,” “Dune,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “West Side Story.” To my mind, all are as good as earlier versions and, in some cases, better.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a remake of a documentary. Sandra Bullock’s Netflix hit “The Unforgivable” is based on the British TV series “Unforgiven.” The streamer’s “The Guilty” is a remake of the Norwegian film.
As for Oscar chances, best-picture-winning remakes include the 1935 “Mutiny on the Bounty” (after 1916 and 1933 films covered the same events); “Hamlet” in 1948; “Marty,” the 1955 remake of the TV play; and “Ben-Hur” in 1959.
“The Departed” (2006) was the first best-picture winner adapted from a non-English-language film (Hong Kong’s great “Infernal Affairs”); and “12 Years a Slave” (2012) was a new version of TV’s 1984 “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey.”
Could “WSS” win Oscar’s top prize, matching the win for the 1961 version? That’s never happened before but, as you may have noticed, the 21st century is full of surprises.
Pundits worried “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” couldn’t win because no fantasy film had ever taken the top Oscar; they fretted whether a non-English-language film could win, and then “Parasite” did. The point is things never happen — until they do.
Oscar doesn’t seem to have a problem with remakes. “True Grit” (2010) was nominated for 10 awards, including best picture; that’s five times as many as the 1969 version.
In recent years we’ve seen best-pic nominations for “A Star Is Born” (2018) and “Little Women” (2019), both based on material that had been filmed multiple times.
Oscar best-pic wins went to musical versions of works that had been filmed previously as non-musicals: “Gigi” in 1958, “My Fair Lady” in 1964; “Oliver!” in 1968; and “Chicago” in 2002.
Nominated remakes include “Les Miserables,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Scent of a Woman” and “The Thin Red Line.” Best picture nominee “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) was the third version within a decade of Dashiell Hammett’s novel.
Some “WSS” people insist it’s an adaptation of the play, not a remake. But it has the same title, plot, characters and songs as the 1961 film, so there’s no shame in calling it a remake.
Hollywood PR is wary of that concept, though the theater isn’t. Broadway and the West End regularly mount revivals; how many productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Death of a Salesman” have we seen? The theater crowd knows that it’s exciting to see new interpretations of familiar works.
The film world doesn’t share that enthusiasm. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 “Psycho” remake was treated as a crime against humanity. I’m in the minority, but I liked it, liked seeing the interesting new spin from Van Sant and his actors. It also was a reminder of the greatness of Joseph Stefano’s script, based on Robert Bloch’s novel.
As a side note, it’s distressing to see how gleefully Oscar pundits report weak box office. One influential mainstream paper — no names, why embarrass them further? — described “West Side Story” B.O. as “disastrous.” Um, compared to what? It’s silly and misleading to judge B.O. by pre-COVID standards. A little perspective (and kindness) never hurt.