Original ‘West Side Story’ star Rita Moreno comes full circle with remake role

Rita Moreno appears at the Castro Theater in San Francisco during a screening of the new “West Side Story”, a movie she starred in 1961 and 2021. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

In the 1961 and 2021 film adaptations of the musical “West Side Story”, there is a heartbreaking scene that brings the story to its tragic conclusion: the character of Anita, played in the previous film by Rita Moreno, a longtime resident of Berkeley, walks into Doc’s pharmacy. to send a message to Tony that his sweetheart, Maria, will meet him later so the couple can escape to safety. As a messenger, Puerto Rican Anita is attacked by fellow members of Tony’s white gang, the Jets, who catch her, scolding racial epithets, in an implied sexual assault. It’s a scene that Moreno says propelled her to be the first Latina actor to win an Oscar.

But it came at a high emotional cost.

“I just started crying and couldn’t stop,” Moreno told The Chronicle of filming that scene as Anita 60 years ago.

The EGOT-winning artist has said in recent years that she was raped by her agent during her early years in Hollywood and said of filming this scene 60 years ago that “I thought that it was all over for me.… All he did was reopen wounds that never healed.

Moreno presents the new “West Side Story” at the Castro Theater. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

For those who have seen Moreno talk about the actual assault in the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”, there is an added gravity to the way the scene unfolds in the 2021 film, where Moreno portrays a new character, Valentina, the widow of Doc. In the film directed by Steven Spielberg, it is Valentina who stops the attack of Anita, played by Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”). And Tony Kushner’s new screenplay leaves no room for ambiguity at the time: Valentina calls the Jets “rapists”.

“It’s more violent, it’s scary,” Moreno said of the backstage scene during an SFFilm special screening of the new film at the Castro Theater on Sunday, December 12, in front of a crowd of young actors and filmmakers. budding to mark the 30th anniversary. of the educational branch of the organization. “She said, ‘You dishonor yourself and your dead.’ “

Moreno, who turned 90 on Saturday, December 11, described the shooting of that scene as “from another world” and “weird,” but viewers also felt she was making a symbolic correction. In her early days in show business, Moreno was often cast for roles that required her to conform to exotic and highly sexualized versions of dark-skinned women and was abused by powerful men who still have her. more belittled off-screen with their sexual advances. Watching Valentina save Anita in this latest reinvention of the famous musical is like watching Moreno protect a younger version of herself.

Keith Zwolfer, director of education at SFFilm, said he was “excited about this version (which) has so many more layers” and “how it can be a teaching tool.”

SFFilm Executive Director Anne Lai said the original film brought Moreno “to the public consciousness in a way that nothing else has had despite all the work she has done”, but this that Spielberg and the producers did by including her in the latest adaptation “feels so full circle.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”. Photo: Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

Over the past decade, Moreno has explained her journey as a performer in the present day, one that has allowed her to talk about the prejudices she has faced as a Puerto Rican and Latina immigrant. In addition to the 2021 documentary and her 2011 memoir, Moreno also presented a one-woman show at Berkeley Rep the same year her book, “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup,” came out. She called the opportunity to revisit “West Side Story” in Spielberg and the racially inclusive and contextual version of Spielberg and Kushner on the “jewel in the crown” story of these projects.

“It took a very, very long time to say the least,” said Moreno. “The hardest part of it really is not allowing myself to be bitter or angry because I have so many reasons to be. When I hear critics say things like with the documentary,” Think what kind of career she could have had… “When I first read this I burst into tears. It reminded me how sad a part of me really is to be refused. what I think I won.

Her performance on this year’s “West Side Story” was hailed as the core of the film, with Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle calling it “nothing short of a career definition.”

Review: Steven Spielberg’s Transcendent “West Side Story” Enhances Original’s Greatness

Moreno as Valentina and Ansel Elgort as Tony in the new “West Side Story”. Photo: 20th century studios

Moreno was born Rosa “Rosita” Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico, to seamstress Rosa María Marcano and farmer Francisco José “Paco” Alverío. In 1936, Moreno’s mother moved to New York City with her daughter, leaving behind a younger child, Francisco, whom Moreno said he never saw again. In New York, she took the name of her stepfather, Edward Moreno, and began studying Spanish dance with Paco Cansino, the uncle of movie star Rita Hayworth.

By the time she was a teenager, she had already performed on Broadway and signed a contract with Hollywood studio MGM. Moreno’s first roles included roles in now classic musicals such as’ Singin ‘in the Rain’ by Gene Kelly, which she sees as a highlight, but she was more often chosen for what she described. like “dark maiden roles” such as the enslaved Burmese character. Tuptim in “The King and Me”.

Moreno kicks off the 1961 “West Side Story”. Photo: 1961 TCM Classic Film Festival

When she was cast as Anita in ‘West Side Story’ in ’61, she was acclaimed in the film, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture. But despite Moreno’s performance, the film is now seen to contain problematic elements that were a product of its time – most notably, of the three main Puerto Rican characters, Moreno was the only Latina, along with Natalie Wood, a child of Russian Jewish parents. , dark make-up to play Maria.

After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1962, Moreno did not shoot another film for seven years, rejecting offers to appear in other gang-themed films that were inferior. She won a Grammy Award for the album from the television show “The Electric Company” in 1972, a Tony for his role as Googie Gomez in “The Ritz” in 1975 and the Emmy Awards for his appearance on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 and in “The Rockford Files” in 1978. But throughout his prolific career, which included a Turning to acclaimed HBO prison drama “Oz,” Anita’s role continues to be one with which Moreno is most identified.

“Anita turned out to be for me, at that time, my first role model,” said Moreno. “She’s the first character that is a Latina, had all the qualities I had always dreamed of, it was a sense of dignity, a sense of self-respect, opinionated. To my surprise, she sneaked in. against me when I was playing her and I thought, “Oh my God, this is the woman I always wanted to be.” “

Steven Spielberg and Moreno on the set of 2021’a “West Side Story”. Photo: Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

When Moreno, who is also an executive producer on the 2021 film, was approached to play Valentina, she couldn’t believe Spielberg was going after the material. “I thought it was either absolutely stupid or incredibly brave,” she said.

“It turns out he didn’t have to be brave because he knew exactly what he wanted to do. And of course, without Kushner it wouldn’t have been the same movie, as it touched on so many political situations that were completely ignored before.

Among the differences between the film adaptations are the casting of Latino performers in Puerto Rican roles and the focus the filmmakers place on authentic portrayal of the community experience.

Moreno, at the Castro Theater, says Anita’s “West Side Story” character is special to anyone playing the role. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Moreno is already generating buzz for another Oscar nomination for her role as Valentina. When she won in 1962, she gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches in history. When asked what she might say if she wins in 2022, she objects to it, instead praising her co-star.

“Ariana DeBose is wonderful in this area,” said Moreno. “In fact, she’s a much better dancer than I’ve ever been. It’s not modesty, it’s just great.

That said, Moreno does think Anita’s character is special to anyone who plays the role.

“Anyone who’s ever played Anita – and I’m sure there have been quite a few touring ‘West Side Story’ – I think that sticks with you.”

“West Side Story” (PG-13) is in theaters.

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