Oscar Snub: Mike Faist as Riff in Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

The 1961 West Side Story film was the first movie musical I fell in love with. I wasn’t alive when it was made, but I was captivated when it aired on television during my childhood. Every time it aired, I was glued to the TV.

I was amazed by the dancing. I had never seen dancers appear so masculine in their movements. Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the film was faithful to the dance he had laid out for the Broadway production that premiered in New York in 1957.

The Leonard Bernstein score and Stephen Sondheim lyrics moved me in a way that no music had done before. I had been in musicals like Oliver! as a child and had an affinity for music, but the emotion that the Bernstein/Sondheim songs stirred was something new to me. Passion, anger, love, hate, friendship, betrayal…these were just some of the emotions that the music reflects.

Not to be left out of the conversation, Arthur Laurents wrote the script for the Broadway musical – a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with the gangs the Jets and the Sharks taking the place of the Montagues and Capulets. Laurents’ words remain brilliant to this day.

Once I grew up, I was thrilled to perform in stage versions of West Side Story around the country. I appeared in over 20 productions in the roles of Tony, Riff, and Bernardo. I sang and danced my heart out and loved every performance.

Steven Spielberg has earned yet another Best Director Academy Award nomination for his 2021 film remake of West Side Story. It is a well-deserved nomination, and he has as good a chance of winning as anyone else in the field.

A film remake of West Side Story had been in talks for many years. A new film version was first discussed by Disney in the 1990’s. I know, because I was considered for the role of Riff. However, the film never made it out of the talking phase.

In 2014, Spielberg asked 20th Century Fox to formally acquire the rights for him. Five years later in 2019 he started principal photography. Originally slated for a 2020 release, the film did not make it to theaters until 2021 due to the COVID pandemic.

When the nominations for the 94th Academy Awards were announced, I felt a number of snubs had been made. In the case of West Side Story, I was surprised not to see Tony Kushner nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. I was also very disappointed that Rita Moreno didn’t receive a Best Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of the newly created role of Valentina – widow of Tony’s mentor Doc. She deserved it.

Moreno comes full circle with her appearance in this new West Side Story. She won an Oscar for her portrayal of the fiery Anita in the original film. Her rendition of Somewhere in the new film is incredibly moving.

The biggest Oscar snub of 2022 is that Mike Faist didn’t earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his scene stealing characterization of Riff in Spielberg’s West Side Story. The film is very good, many would even argue great. It has a good chance of winning Best Picture. The best performance in the film, a significant part of what makes it great, is that of Faist’s tightly coiled, emotionally unstable gang leader.

Russ Tamblyn was captivating in his portrayal of Riff in the 1961 film. It was that character I first felt a connection to when I watched the film. Tamblyn’s performance was tough but with flourishes of innocence and humor.

Part of the reason why Tamblyn’s Riff comes across as fun loving is that, for the film, director Robbins and co-director Robert Wise moved the comedic number Gee, Officer Krupke to the beginning of the film, giving the song to Riff instead of Action.

In the original stage musical, Gee, Officer Krupke is in the second act, after Riff has died. It was inserted in the show because the creators feared that Act 2 might be too depressing, and the audience could benefit from some momentary lightheartedness.

As written, Riff sings the song Cool in Act 1 prior to the war council with the Sharks to set the rules for the pending rumble. Unlike Gee, Officer Krupke, Cool is a song that lives in the darkness of mania. The Riff that sings this song is charged with anger that he is struggling to contain. It creates a very different character than Tamblyn’s affable gang leader.

For the big budget Spielberg remake, Cool is primarily sung by Tony, but features an impressive dance/fight composite between Tony and Faist’s Riff. When Riff does contribute his voice to the song, his emotional intent is totally different than the way the song was originally written. In fact, you can pretty much say that everything about Faist’s Riff is unlike anything seen before.

The 1961 Robbins/Wise film was technicolor and sanitized. They even had to change the line “sperm to worm” from the Broadway script to “womb to tomb” to make sure no one was offended.

By contrast, Spielberg went for a gritty world of urban decay and teen angst. Faist’s Riff is what makes that world translate to the viewing audience. His Riff makes the world real and not just people in pretty costumes singing and dancing.

Faist wasn’t the only actor to be overlooked by the Academy. There were many fine performances in many fine films that went surprisingly unrecognized. But that doesn’t change the fact that Faist is the one who deserves the Oscar.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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