By Kurt Anthony Krug
Press & Guide
Rita Moreno didn’t feel intimidated succeeding theater legend Chita Rivera as Anita in 1961’s big screen adaptation of the beloved musical “West Side Story.”
“I always felt that this part had my name on it,” said Moreno, 82.
“West Side Story” – which won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture – is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In it, a caucasian gang called the Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) battles a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants called the Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakiris) over control of Manhattan’s west side Lincoln Square neighborhood. At a dance, Maria (Natalie Wood) – Bernardo’s younger sister – meets Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, and it’s love at first sight. However, both gangs don’t want the star-crossed lovers together, which has tragic consequences for all.
The movie will be screened Sept. 26, through Sept. 28, at the Redford Theatre in Detroit with Moreno appearing (see sidebar).
“I’m looking forward to seeing the movie and being interviewed on stage and all that – that’s sooo much fun because I have such great memories of this movie… I’m proud of it,” said Moreno.
Upon landing the role of Anita – Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante – Moreno had already appeared in two iconic musicals: 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly and 1956’s “The King and I” with Yul Brynner. It was on the latter where Moreno met choreographer Jerome Robbins, who co-directed “West Side Story” with Robert Wise.
“The first thing (Robbins) said is, ‘We should get Rita Moreno to try out. I think she’ll be really good for the part of Anita.’ I said, ‘Sure. Why not?’” recalled Moreno. “But I had to audition just like everybody else… And I got that sucker – I got it!”
And for her performance, she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
She believes the scene where the Jets attack Anita won her the Oscar.
“It used to be called the ‘taunting scene,’ where they almost rape her. So when Doc (Ned Glass) interferes, she’s so upset and says, ‘Don’t you touch me! Maria is dead!’ I think that’s the scene that won me the Oscar because you don’t get those kinds of scenes in musicals. People don’t realize that, which is why musicals don’t often get the awards they deserve. What’s extraordinary about ‘West Side Story’ is that it has all of those elements: musical comedy; great, great choreography; and it has drama – and that’s very, very, very unusual,” explained Moreno.
It was also a hard scene for Moreno to film.
“All those kids calling me terrible names – spic, garlic mouth, whore – I’ve been there. I wasn’t a gang girl, but everything else was accurate. The wounds have never really healed and I didn’t know that until these kids, whom I loved, playing the Jets called me that over and over. I just broke down,” she recalled. “I was crying so hard that (Wise) had to call an early lunch. I went to my dressing room and cried it all out. I’m not a pretty crier – my nose runs, my eyes get all red, and my face gets shiny and swollen. (Wise) tried to comfort me. After lunch, we finished the scene.”
Susan McGraw and George Popovich use “West Side Story” in their film classes at Henry Ford College in Dearborn.
“I teach it in my film genres class as an example of one of the great American musicals,” said Popovich. “(‘West Side Story’) translates (‘Romeo and Juliet’) into terms modern audiences can understand without dumbing down the art and power inherent in Shakespeare’s original story.”
McGraw believes Moreno was perfect casting.
“To counter Natalie Wood's performance as the innocent Maria, we needed a perfect combination of toughness, sensuality and vulnerability in Anita, and Rita Moreno delivered. She was able to connect with the audience and could be both loved and despised for her loyalties all at the same time. This is a difficult persona to carry through a film as an actor, but Moreno knew exactly who she wanted Anita to be. Add her beauty and singing voice to the mix, and you have one of the most complex characterizations in the entire film genre,” explained McGraw.
Moreno is one of a select few who’s won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony. Additionally, she’s earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2004, the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2009, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award last year, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, CA.
“Here’s this Puerto Rican kid who was born in another country and went through all kinds of hell living in Hollywood because of all the racial bias, then she ends up winning those wonderful and coveted and thrilling awards. To this day, I look at those awards and I say, ‘Oh my God, how thrilling,’” she said. “I have all my awards on this table in my living room… Next to my Oscar is a little gold plastic soccer trophy from my grandson Justin. One day, Justin came in – (he was 8 at the time) – the first thing I see is this trophy being waved in my face. And I said, ‘Oh, man, Justin, this is sooo cool. You must be sooo proud.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am. I would like it very much if I put (it) next to the little gold man.’ That’s where it’s been for years.”
Moreno continued: “Let me say that being a Hispanic, being the first to have won all those (awards) makes me very proud and I’m very aware of that! And I never forget that! Let me tell you something: Neither does the Hispanic community and – wow – they are so proud. I was just in Puerto Rico recently – my birthplace – people carry on about that. They cry when they meet me, some of them. This is the kid who couldn’t find a role model. It’s pretty terrific. I have become my own role model.”
Moreno’s appeared in numerous film and TV projects, including “The Electric Company” (she shouted “Hey, you guys!” at the beginning), “The Muppet Show,” “The Rockford Files,” “Oz,” and “Rio 2.”
“Rita was an absolute joy to work with. A lot of us were pretty inexperienced at camera acting, and she could’ve chewed us up and spit us out, and/or behaved like a real diva – which she legitimately is – but she was a consummate team player. One of the guys,” praised “Oz” co-star J.K. Simmons, a Grosse Pointe native.
Yet she’ll always be remembered for “West Side Story.”
“It’s absolutely astonishing. When I’m in the audience and the audience cheers and boos, they get so emotionally involved. And I’m not talking about teenagers; I’m talking about adults,” said Moreno. “It’s pretty fabulous to be in that kind of film. Everyone lives the moments with you.”