Elephant in the room: Why is no one talking about Ansel Elgort in ‘West Side Story’?
Ansel Elgort found himself at the centre of a sexual assault accusations last summer, but just a few short months later and it’s been swept under the rug.
Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated remake of the 1961 classic West Side Story was released in December and less than a week later it was nominated for four Golden Globe awards. Not all is as fine and dandy as it may seem though, and the powers that be have been hoping all the positive feedback will deflect attention from accusations against one of its lead actors.
Originally due to premiere last year, production was supposedly put on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions. Though the movie industry would rarely (if ever?) describe the onset of a global pandemic as “convenient”, the whole thing did seem cosmically timed for the West Side Story team who suddenly found themselves in the firing line after sexual assault allegations against their male lead, Ansel Elgort, emerged… and so the movie was postponed under the guise of public health.
Sexual assault allegations
Cynics will tell you this was an excuse, and while that may not be entirely true it does seem to be at least partly so. Rumours that the actor had behaved inappropriately first started circulating on Twitter last summer, after a woman identified as Gabby alleged that he had sexually assaulted her in 2014 when she was 17-years-old and he was 20. Sharing a screenshot of an exchange between the two, Gabby also posted a photo of them together, admitting that he had asked her to send nudes and if she would have a threesome with him and another (underage) friend. When the two did have sex, Gabby said that she was “sobbing in pain” and “didn’t want to do it”. She claimed that Elgort knew she was a virgin, adding that “he made me think this is how sex was supposed to be… years later I have PTSD, I have panic attacks. I go to therapy.”
Quick to deny the claims, the actor addressed the controversy in a statement posted to Instagram. According to him, the pair did have “a brief, legal and entirely consensual relationship”, but he never assaulted her. “I cannot claim to understand Gabby’s feelings but her description of events is simply not what happened,” he wrote. “I have never and would never assault anyone.” In his words, he “didn’t handle the break up well”. “I stopped responding to her, which is an immature and cruel thing to do to someone. I know this belated apology does not absolve me of my unacceptable behaviour when I disappeared,” he continued.
“As I look back at my attitude, I am disgusted and deeply ashamed of the way I acted. I am truly sorry,” he added, finishing by saying, “I know I must continue to reflect, learn, and work to grow in empathy.”
Gabby’s story encouraged others to come forward and as The Cut puts it, the allegation surfaced reports of similar behaviour. Other minors claimed that he had engaged in or invited sexual activity with them via DM and the previously Instagram–active Elgort was driven offline. Eagle-eyed social media users will know that he’s since re-emerged. He’s done a thorough clear-out though and his most recent posts pertain only to West Side Story. Gone is his statement responding to Gabby, and with it any trace of his wrongdoing.
Gabby also deleted her original tweet and no further action was taken against Elgort. The pandemic allowed him to wait out the scandal in private, with his West Side Story family apparently fully behind him too. Fans suspected that the decision to push out the movie’s premiere meant that Elgort’s role as Tony would be recast (filming wrapped in 2019 before the allegations emerged the following year), but as we now know, he’s faced few if any consequences.
While his accusers have not reported him to authorities and nothing have been proven in a court of law, Elgort has faced no questions about the accusations beyond his initial Instagram post. His recent appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden is indicative of this. Joining the popular talk-show host to discuss his new role and how he was super excited to be involved in the project, the duo’s conversation was extremely surface-level. Elgort gushed about attending the lavish New York City premiere for the movie, recounted the advice that the late Stephen Sondheim had shared with him and, as Variety notes, “gamely demonstrated how, as a kid, he’d parade around his home performing music from Fiddler on the Roof.”
Brushing it under the rug
The powers that be might have hoped that the year’s break would gloss over the controversy, but the public haven’t forgotten. “Everyone who made this happen… should be extremely disappointed and disgusted with themselves,” one viewer wrote in the comments section under the YouTube clip. “They think we’re dumb?,” another questioned. Holding people accountable for their actions is always important, but it’s all the more so in a post #MeToo world, and keeping Elgort in the cast as if absolutely nothing has happened is further proof that Hollywood doesn’t take women or sexual assault seriously. Whether events occurred as Gabby and others described them we don’t know, but the accusations have occurred and they need to be dealt with.
You have to ask, if Elgort had been in Zegler’s position, ie a non-white newcomer rather than an established white male actor facing those kinds of accusations, would he have been given the same amount of shelter and protection? We all know the answer.
The movie is important though and while Elgort certainly detracts from the positive message, it is still a huge step in the right direction. Especially where matters of diversity and representation are concerned. Though as our digital editor, Lauren Heskin, pointed out – it wouldn’t be hard to best the original 1961 version where the majority of the cast wore brownface… and yet, it still won 10 Oscars, inducing Best Picture.
For decades, the Puerto Rican love story has been portrayed through the lens of whiteness. Spielberg’s modern retelling marks the first time that it’s been given the proper care and attention it deserves. For one, the female lead is actually Latina. “You know, our movie is a step in the right direction,” Rachel Zegler told Buzzfeed. “I think West Side Story does such a wonderful job at exploring the idea of Latin joy, which I don’t think is always at the forefront of media that has our people in it. So, I’m very blessed to be a part of something that does, and also something that tells an authentic true story about love and identity and what happens when we choose love over hate.”
.@rachelzegler on how proud she is to play Maria in West Side Story: "It's so important for that next generation to see someone that looks like them."
— 20/20 (@ABC2020) December 6, 2021
“It’s so important for people like us to see people like us on screen,” she noted in another interview. No one wears brownface, some of the problematic lyrics have been changed to reflect modern values, Spanish is spoken more frequently and the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang in the movie) get a more detailed backstory too. The 2021 edition obviously isn’t without its flaws, but it’s much better than anticipated and the team took plenty of criticism on board to ensure that they avoided the same missteps.
While it’s great to see the movie triumph for the positive waves it’s making in the industry, Elgort’s name amongst the cast list dampens enthusiasm, to say the least.