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Sixty years after winning an Oscar for her role in West Side Story, Rita Moreno appears in Steven Spielberg’s version, which has a new sense of what it means to ‘get it right’. By Philippa Hawker.

Actor Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno.
Credit: AP Photo / Chris Pizzello

When Rita Moreno took the call from Steven Spielberg, she knew what it would be about. He was working on a new version of West Side Story, the legendary 1961 musical for which she had won an Oscar for best supporting actress. And, she tells me, she had her answer ready. Kind but firm. No, thanks.

“When he asked me if I would be interested in participating in the movie, I said, in my most polite voice, very gently, ‘I certainly don’t want to seem as though I’m telling you how to do your movie, but I don’t do cameos.  And I think it might be very distracting if you had someone like me.’ At that point he interrupted. He said, ‘No, no, no, no. It’s a part. It’s a real role.’ ”

So she asked to see the script. She loved the new character that had been written for her, and she burst into tears when she saw the song she would be given to sing. She called Spielberg back. “And once I said yes, he said, ‘Would you also consider being an executive producer?’ Now that’s the one that almost made me wet my knickers.”

In the original West Side Story, Moreno played the dynamic, assertive Anita, a figure who for many is the heart of the film. Returning 60 years later as a new character has given her the chance to revisit the highs and lows the movie represented for her.

Moreno, who turned 90 recently, has a seemingly unquenchable appetite for work and activism. Her long career as an actor, dancer and singer on film, stage and television has been full of twists and turns, a to-and-fro of recognition, setback and achievement. Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary portrait, Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, currently streaming, gives a strong sense of all this, and of her energy, her candour, her warmth.

She was born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico in 1931. At the age of five, she went to New York with her mother. She didn’t see her little brother again until 2021, and her father only once more. She was an extroverted child who loved to perform, and a family friend suggested she should go to dancing school. She began lessons with Paco Cansino, who was Rita Hayworth’s uncle. When she was six or seven, she partnered him in a nightclub act.

She became a breadwinner. At 16, she was offered a contract with MGM Studios after mogul Louis B. Mayer had a meeting with her and decided she looked like “a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor”.

What came from this, however, was a cavalcade of minor roles she describes as “all-purpose ethnic”: she would be cast as Native American, Tahitian, an “island girl”, a sketchily drawn, dismissively treated character.  She was expected to speak with an accent – any accent – and to wear darker make-up “the colour of mud” no matter what the role. The message she absorbed, without realising it, was about her own lack of worth.

There had been a brief, exhilarating respite when she was cast in the musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Her role was as the red-haired silent star Zelda Zanders, the so-called darling of the flapper set. It was a small part, but she made the most of it, spending every day she could on set, watching the filmmakers at work. She was inspired by Gene Kelly’s mixture of artistry and endurance, particularly when he filmed the title number. She hoped her role would lead to better things.

It didn’t happen. The “exotic” parts continued. “It became so painful,” she says. “But at that point, I had to pay the rent. My mother had an infant child, and it was her and me and the baby boy. Whatever I could do to help I did, and if it meant playing those characters, I had to do that.”

At the time, contract players were at the beck and call of studios. Moreno has written and spoken about the pressure she witnessed, the treatment of women as sexual objects. When she was a teenager, she was raped by her agent. “I still let him be my agent,” she recalls in the documentary. “That’s what astonishes me, that I thought so little of myself.”

Some things were to change in her life when she met Marlon Brando on the set of his 1954 movie Désirée. “I was one of the few people who could look him in the eye,” she says, “and know when he was lying.” He liked it when she caught him out, she adds. “In a very interesting way, he was pleased that somebody in his life, whom he cared about, really knew and understood and even forgave him.”  She speaks generously about him, regards him as a mentor as well as a lover.

Their relationship continued for eight years, but it was often devastating and destructive for her. She made a suicide attempt when she was at her lowest point. In hospital, she realised that she could not continue down a path of obsession and humiliation. “I really loved him. I loved him with every part of my being, but it turns out that that was a very immature kind of love and something had to be seriously, seriously changed before I could stop falling for men who were to my mind, quote, ‘too good for me’.”

Therapy made this possible, and in a way, she says, she has Brando to thank for it. He told her that he felt she should do it. “And honestly, I don’t know what would have happened had I not.” But, she explains, “You have to be willing to be a participant in getting well. You can’t just hope that somebody will come along and say, ‘I’m going to fix you.’ ”

In 1956, she was cast in the adaptation of a hit Broadway musical: she played Princess Tuptim, a young Burmese bride, in The King and I (1956). It was the first movie for choreographer Jerome Robbins, the person she describes as “the second genius I’ve met in my life”, after Brando. He was famously volatile and could be brutal, even cruel, to his dancers, but she never experienced this extreme. She says he was tough with her, but never mean. It was Robbins who recommended her for the role of Anita in the film version of West Side Story.

The musical began its life as a stage show in 1957, with a book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It was a Broadway landmark, a Romeo and Juliet tale in which the warring aristocratic families became the Sharks and the Jets, New York street gangs divided along racial lines: the Sharks were Puerto Rican, the Jets white.

The 1961 film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, was a groundbreaker of another kind. And at last, Moreno was playing a Puerto Rican character: Anita, girlfriend to Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Sharks and brother to Maria (Natalie Wood), who was the Juliet to Richard Beymer’s Romeo figure, Tony. In Anita, Moreno says, she found an inspiration, a role model, a Latina with a strong sense of self. Her wit is sharp and she speaks her mind. Furthermore, Moreno says, Robbins created “in character”, so that his choreography for Anita specifically expressed the person she was.

Yet she was still required to wear darker makeup. She considered quitting at the outset when she read the opening lines of her celebrated number, “America”, in which Anita proclaims her commitment to her new home. Moreno didn’t know if she could sing the words, “Puerto Rico, you ugly island / Island of tropical diseases.” When she got a new script, she was relieved to see that the lines had been changed, without her intercession, to something with which she felt more comfortable.

There was another moment that blindsided her. It was during a rehearsal for the scene, at a chaotic point in the narrative, in which Anita takes a message from Maria to Tony at the Jets’ hangout. When Anita arrives, the Jets attack her. It’s a rape scene, basically, Moreno says.

“You probably know what happened to me,” she says. “I burst into hysterical sobs, and I couldn’t stop crying, because they were calling me terrible things, like Bernardo’s pig, tramp, trying to lift my skirts and all that.”

It’s an unsettling scene in the film, and it affected Moreno in ways she had never anticipated. “What I didn’t realise until then is that some wounds never heal well. And all of these things from my childhood, where I was called these terrible names by so many people, or insulted by so many people, or had my feelings hurt by so many people in my profession … those things apparently had stayed with me all those years and it was like pond scum coming to the surface.” She was given time to recover, and eventually she was able to shoot the scene.

West Side Story was a commercial and critical hit. It won 10 Oscars, including best supporting actor and actress for Chakiris and Moreno. Yet the success of the film and the spotlight on her performance led nowhere. Apart from “a few gang roles”, there were no movie offers.

“My daughter and I were talking about this just the other day,” Moreno says, “and I think she nailed it. She said to me, ‘Mom, I think everyone thought it was a one-off.’ ”

When Moreno’s movie career didn’t take off, she found a way to extend the range of her characters, and to build on her strengths, beginning with stage and television work and performance. She threw herself into activism, inspired at the outset by a politically aware roommate. In the 1970s, she appeared for six years on the innovative children’s television show The Electric Company and won a Grammy for the cast album. She won a Tony in 1975 for her role in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz as an unstoppably bad lounge singer, based on a comedy routine she did for McNally at a party. She also won two Emmys for her appearances on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files. With the Oscar from West Side Story, she has that rare show-business quartet of awards popularly known as an EGOT, and she hasn’t stopped working.

When it came to revisiting West Side Story, it makes perfect sense that Spielberg sought her out. The new version is the work of a director who grew up loving the original movie, and also recognised that there were elements that could benefit from a change.

The creative team is still composed of white men: Spielberg; Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, a frequent Spielberg collaborator; and New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck. But the casting is different: the Sharks are played by Latinx performers who do their own singing; there is Spanish dialogue in the film, and it’s not subtitled. Kushner’s screenplay fleshes out some characters and gives a more specific context for what’s happening in the city at time. The 1961 movie changed the order of some of the songs from the stage show, and the new version shuffles them further, also changing who sings what to whom.

Moreno’s character is called Valentina. She’s Puerto Rican and she occupies the place taken in the first film by Doc, proprietor of the candy store where the Jets hang out. The role, she says, was the idea of Kushner’s husband, writer Mark Harris. “He’s the one who said to Tony, ‘Why don’t you use Rita Moreno as Doc’s widow?’ ”

As executive producer, her chief role was to be a cultural consultant to Spielberg. “In practical terms that meant that anything that I could contribute to the Puerto Rican, Hispanic scenes, he expected me to help him out with that, which I did.” She was one of several sources the production consulted. “It was thrilling to see that they really were working so hard to get it right this time.”

The role Moreno played on screen had complicated resonances: Valentina makes an appearance in the scene of Anita’s trauma, calling out what’s going on. It was still a bit of a shock to her, she says, to be in that traumatic moment with someone else playing Anita. It wasn’t about the performance by Ariana DeBose, she adds. “I like her immensely. I think she’s wonderful in the role. It was about my head simply not accepting this other person. My brain just did all kinds of tricks.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "A second one-off".

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Philippa Hawker writes on film and is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.