The original 1961 West Side Story movie from Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise is one of my favorite films of all time. In fact, it is my favorite movie musical of all time.
The film, an adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. From the first time I saw the film, I was captivated by the sheer magnitude of it.
The dancing was amazing. The vocals were stunning. The story was captivating. The acting was addictive. There was nothing I didn’t love about the film.
Rita Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance as Anita. George Chakiris also won the Best Supporting Actor award playing opposite Moreno.
Moreno’s Anita was feisty and sassy and 100% sexy. Her smile lit up the screen, her dancing made my jaw drop, and her tears when Bernardo died tore at my soul. Moreno’s Best Supporting Actress award was one of the most deserving wins in cinematic history.
Interestingly, Moreno didn’t appear in another film for seven years because she was only being offered stereotypical Latina characters. Moreno has long championed outside the box casting. In one of her earliest films, she was cast alongside Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor in the 1954 film Singing in the Rain. She played silent film star Zelda Zanders and often has spoken with high praise for Kelly who argued for the Puerto Rican actress to get the role despite it not being a Hispanic character.
Another non-traditional role for Moreno was in the 1956 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Moreno played Tuptim, a slave from Burma who is brought to Siam to be wed to the King as one of his harem of wives.
In the 1970’s Moreno lit up my life as a cast member of the PBS children’s series The Electric Company. In 1975 she won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in The Ritz.
Over the years Moreno has appeared on such television shows as 9 to 5, The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, Miami Vice, Oz, The Nanny, and One Day at a Time. She won two primetime Emmy Awards for her performances on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files.
When it was announced that Moreno would be playing a new character in Steven Spielberg’s big budget 2021 remake of West Side Story, I was skeptical. It’s not that I doubted Moreno’s talent and charisma. Having been a fan of hers my whole life, I was confident she could play any character. It was the idea of a new character being added to the story that bothered me.
When further details were announced and it was revealed that Moreno’s character Valentina was going to be Doc’s widow, my brain came close to short circuiting. I could not figure out how that would work. As much as I love Rita Moreno, I was scared her role would ruin the film.
When I sat down to watch Spielberg’s West Side Story in the theater, I was blown away by Moreno’s Valentina. Screenwriter Tony Kushner created a character that really works and adds far more depth to the story originally penned by Arthur Laurents. And Moreno brought it to life with her trademark charm. Her rendition of the song Somewhere takes the film from being good, to being a classic.
I was heartbroken when the 2022 Academy Award nominations were announced, and Moreno was not on the list. I felt she deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination. It would have been a perfect example of a storied career coming full circle.
I don’t know if Moreno’s performance as Valentina in Spielberg’s West Side Story could beat Ariana DeBose’s performance as Anita in Academy Award voting, but I wish she would have gotten the nomination.
Moreno will always be a star in my book. She is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil honor. She was also awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to American culture via her work in performing arts, and in 2019 was given the Peabody Career Achievement Award.
Rita Moreno is an amazing talent that we are lucky to have been blessed with so many of her wonderful performances.
Peace. Love. Trust.
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