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Backlash may have pushed ‘West Side Story’ star Rachel Zegler invite to Oscars

The news that Zegler hadn't been initially invited sparked outrage among Latinos questioning why the star of one of the most nominated movies wouldn't be at Hollywood’s biggest night.
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"West Side Story" star Rachel Zegler has been invited to present at the Academy Awards this weekend, a few days after the actor publicly said she had not been invited to the ceremony.

The Hollywood Reporter first reported Tuesday that Zegler had been asked, and the film academy confirmed the news on Wednesday in a press release announcing the final slate of presenters for Sunday's Oscars ceremony.

"well folks, i can’t believe i’m saying this but... see you on sunday!" Zegler said in a tweet Wednesday night. "am thrilled to be able to celebrate my @westsidemovie fam at the oscars."

The news that Zegler had not been initially invited to the Oscars sparked outrage among many Latinos who were looking forward to seeing the star of the most acclaimed Latino-focused film of the year represent their community on Hollywood’s biggest night.

With seven nominations, “West Side Story” is the third most nominated film of this year’s Academy Awards, including a coveted best picture nomination, as well as for best director.

Zegler, who starred as Maria, the lead character in Steven Spielberg's remake of the iconic musical, revealed on Instagram over the weekend she lacked an invitation to the Oscars, in response to a fan who said they couldn’t wait to see what she would “be wearing on Oscar night.

“I’m not invited so sweatpants and my boyfriend’s flannel,” Zegler replied in the comments. “Idk y’all I have tried it all but it doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story."
Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

The reaction to the fact Zegler wasn’t invited was swift.

"@TheAcademy claims to want to embrace diversity," Latina TV creator Gloria Calderón-Kellett said in a tweet Sunday.

"How about the rare time that Latine people have a movie nominated for an OSCAR you invite the lead," she said, using the Spanish-language gender neutral term. "Latine people are 18.5% of this country. ENOUGH!"

Zegler is currently in London shooting Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of “Snow White.” On Wednesday night, she thanked Disney and the film's producers for working "some real-life magic" adjusting the production schedule to allow her to attend the Oscars Sunday.

"it’s not lost on me that being able to shoot a film the scale of snow white during COVID is not easy, and any adjustment to our schedule is no small sacrifice," Zegler said in a series of tweets. "i’m so excited to open that shiny envelope. i could not be more grateful to everyone who helped make this possible. seriously. now, what to wear..."

Set in the 1950s, “West Side Story” centers on the rivalry between two teenage street gangs — the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang — as their communities faced displacement during New York City’s urban renewal period. Their rivalry intensifies when Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo.

Following her debut film performance in Spielberg’s remake, Zegler became only the second Latina to win best actress at the National Board of Review, and at 20 years old the youngest winner. She also won the Golden Globe for lead actress in a comedy or musical, along with the film triumphing in best comedy or musical.

“She’s the Golden Globe-winning female lead of Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee and she’s not invited to the Oscars. I wonder what’s different about her…,” TV writer Jose Molina said in a tweet Sunday.

Zegler, who is of Colombian and Polish descent, was not nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Maria. But her co-star Ariana DeBose earned a nomination in the best supporting actress category for her performance reviving the iconic role of Anita.

Traditionally, the film academy gives each movie studio with a best picture nomination an undefined allotment of tickets to the Oscars, which the studio can assign however it wants. Additionally, each nominated individual receives a plus one to the ceremony for every category in which they are nominated.

In the case of "West Side Story," 20th Century Studios, a film studio owned by the Walt Disney Co., was responsible for distributing those tickets.

The Walt Disney Co. did not respond to requests for comment.

Criticism over a 'missed opportunity'

DeBose, of Puerto Rican descent, is the first Afro Latino performer to receive an Oscar nomination, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a nonprofit organization working to increase Latino visibility in media.

If DeBose wins, she would make history again as the first Afro Latino performer to win an Academy Award.

She would also join a small group of pairs of actors who have won years apart for playing the same character. Legendary actor Rita Moreno won an acting Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film version of “West Side Story,” making history as the first Latina to win the honor.

The only pairs of actors who have won Oscars for playing the same movie roles are Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro for their performances as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” respectively; and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and “Joker,” respectively.

DeBose and Moreno, who returned for Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake as an executive producer and as Valentina, would be the first women and performers of color to join the rare club.

"How did the #Oscars producers also not think what an iconic moment it would have been to have these 3 Latinas present an award together? This is a HUGE missed opportunity," Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement at UCLA’s division of social science, said in a tweet Sunday.

"It shows how much Latinxs are continually overlooked by Hollywood as an integral part of the industry," said Ramón, who has collected data on the lack of diversity in Hollywood for the past decade.

Ramón's research has found that Latinos account for only about 5 percent to 6 percent of main cast members, even though they make up nearly 19 percent of the nation’s population. Only 3 percent of directors and writers, respectively, who worked in top box office and streaming films in 2020 were Latino. The Writers Guild of America has reported that 8.7 percent of TV writers are Latino, according to Ramón.

On Sunday, Latina author Julissa Arce called on Disney and the film academy to "RECTIFY THIS" and apologize for excluding Zegler.

"There are people attending the Oscars who are not nominated for anything, who are not in any movie that’s nominated for anything and yet @rachelzegler the Latina lead of a Best Picture nominee wasn’t invited," Arce said in a series of tweets. "It would NEVER happen that the lead of a movie nominated for Best Picture would not be invited to attend the Oscars."

"The erasure of our community continues, and @TheAcademy is leading the way," she added.

The film academy did not respond to requests for comment.

Following this year's Oscar nominations, National Hispanic Media Coalition President and CEO Brenda Castillo said she was "encouraged by an increasing number of Latinx creatives being recognized for their achievements" after roughly a dozen Latinos earned nominations.

"However there is still much more work to be done," Castillo said last month. "In 94 years, the Oscars have only nominated four Latinas as Best Actress. While this year is a positive step, change in the industry is still slow, piecemeal and inconsistent."

According to Nielsen’s latest Diversity Intelligence Series report, Latino representation is about 10 percent across streaming services and cable and broadcast networks (including Spanish-language ones).

"We call on the industry to continue to uplift and promote Latinx talent not just in front of but behind the camera, ensuring our stories — and the artists that tell them — are recognized for their excellence," Castillo said.

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