West Side Story: Tumultuous Relationships, Activism, and the First Latina with Oscar: Rita Moreno’s 90 Years | People

Those who were there say that on the night of April 9, 1962 there was a thick silence in El Barrio, New York’s Spanish Harlem. Filled with Puerto Rican immigrants, the area held its breath as the Oscars awards were followed on television and radio. The category that everyone was waiting for arrived, best supporting actress, and seconds later people began to shout with joy through the windows: “She did it, she won”; “We won!”. Rita Moreno, who came to the United States from San Juan de Puerto Rico at the age of five and with Rosita Dolores Alveno as her name, had just received the statuette for her performance as Anita in West Side Story. His speech was one of the shortest in history: “I can’t believe it! And with that they stay… ”, he said. It was the birth of a Latin star who to this day shines in the Hollywood firmament.

These days, Steven Spielberg’s version of the classic that won 10 Academy Film Awards, where Moreno appears as an executive producer and also has a role, hits the screens. The director corrected what he considers to be some imperfections in the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise original. These had adapted a 1957 Broadway musical inspired by Romeo and Juliet of the clash between the Jets, a gang of whites, with the Sharks, Puerto Ricans. Moreno, born in Juncos in 1931, was the only Puerto Rican in the original cast. Spielberg, on the other hand, has made the members of the sharks are Latino: 20 of them have roots from the Caribbean island. In addition, the Oscar-winning filmmaker has made entire scenes in Spanish that will not be subtitled for English-speaking audiences.

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Moreno, who turned 90 this December 11, recalls the anger caused by the lack of diversity of that first shoot in the early sixties. All the actors who starred in the sharks they were made up with a homogeneous tobacco-colored bitumen. This seemed absurd to him because it did not represent the skin tones of an island rich in Spanish heritage, indigenous Taíno, black and Dutch. Although the original tape was praised by the press, it was not overlooked by several journalists. “I wonder what the real gang members think of the racial makeup of the gangs in the movie, since, of course, Puerto Ricans are not Puerto Ricans. The only difference that I find between the dancers is that some have had their faces painted dark and the others have gone crazy with the blonde tint “, wrote the famous film critic of The New Yorker Pauline Kael.

Rita Moreno collects her Oscar as best supporting actress for 'West Side Story' in 1962.
Rita Moreno collects her Oscar as best supporting actress for ‘West Side Story’ in 1962.A.M.P.A.S.

West Side Story it was not just a moment of vindication for Latinos. Before her, only two actors had been recognized by the Academy: also Puerto Rican José Ferrer and Mexican American Anthony Quinn. The musical saved Moreno’s life. Robbins cast her as Anita after ordeals in front of the camera of singing, dancing and acting. What the director did not know is that the 26-year-old actress had attempted suicide a few months earlier. One morning in April 1961, Rita got out of Marlon Brando’s bed when he had gone on a shoot and swallowed a handful of sleeping pills.

That was the escape route that he found in the relationship with the protagonist of The law of silence, a destructive romance that lasted for several years even while Brando had two marriages and was the lover of several other women. To make her jealous, the actress dated Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper, among others. For Moreno, the last straw for her depression was that the actor made her pregnant and demanded that she have an abortion, something that was illegal. The procedure was a disaster and left the artist with sequelae that required a second operation. “Deep down in my unconscious I must have realized that my most destructive part had died. He was gone forever, ”Rita wrote of her suicide attempt in her 2013 biography. The relationship ended thanks to the advice of a therapist.

In the book, which became a bestseller, Moreno speaks for the first time of another traumatic experience he had. The girl learned to dance at the age of six with an instructor from New York’s Greenwich Village. The beginning of her career officially began when the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, signed her at age 16 as the “Latin Elizabeth Taylor” of his catalog. The teenager began searching for agents to help her boost her career. One of these, whom she does not name, summoned her to her apartment and raped her. “It had the speed and intimacy of a vaccination,” irreverently writes the actress, who was married for 45 years to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who died in 2010.

Rita Moreno presents the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 90th edition of the awards, on March 4, 2018. The actress wore the same outfit she wore in 1962 to collect her award.
Rita Moreno presents the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 90th edition of the awards, on March 4, 2018. The actress wore the same outfit she wore in 1962 to collect her award.Aaron Poole (A.M.P.A.S.)

Although she experienced a lot of frustration in the first years of her career, since she only got roles as a Mexican or an indigenous woman from exotic territories such as Tahiti, something she “resented”, Moreno was one of the first to reinvent herself in front of the camera and broke stereotypes. She played an Irish teacher, an Italian widow, an upper-class Englishwoman, and a woman from the American South, among dozens of other roles. He has won every possible award in the United States. He is one of only 16 people who have the so-called EGOT, that is, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, all achieved before 1977. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the prestigious Kennedy medal for his contribution to the arts. She was also an activist for minority rights and accompanied Martin Luther King on the 1963 march on Washington.

Rita Moreno does not live on memories. At 90 years old, she is still very active. She recently participated in a comedy as the grandmother of a Cuban-American family. The series was the seed of a documentary about his life, which also premiered in 2021. To make this, he gave the key to his house in Berkeley (California) to the production to be filmed since he opened his eye. No makeup and no wig. Hair for Rita Moreno has always been important. When Gene Kelly chose her to be part of Singing under the rain asked for a new cut. “I don’t cut my hair, Mr. Kelly,” the young woman replied. “The women and girls of Puerto Rico never cut it. It is a source of female pride, ”explained the woman who never lowered her voice in Hollywood again.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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