Rita Moreno Reflects on Career and Returning to West Side Story – The Hollywood Reporter

Rita Moreno is a living legend, best known for her performances in such movie musicals as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, 1956’s The King and I and especially 1961’s West Side Story, for which she won the best supporting actress Academy Award, making her the first Latina Oscar winner. She also is one of just 16 people, and only 10 still alive, who have achieved EGOT status by winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Additionally, she was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, the National Medal of the Arts in 2009, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2013, the Kennedy Center Honor of Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2015 and the Peabody Career Achievement Award in 2019.

Now, more than 70 years into her career, she is returning to West Side Story, which opened in theaters Dec. 10, as an actress and executive producer in Steven Spielberg’s remake, which comes to theaters Dec. 10. She also is the subject of Mariem Pérez Riera’s Sundance documentary feature Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.

Over the course of a conversation for THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast, the 89-year-old reflected on her odds-defying journey from Puerto Rico to the top of Hollywood.

Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?

I was born in Puerto Rico in 1931. My mom was a seamstress and I don’t know what my father did because we left the country without him very early on.

You were 5 when you left Puerto Rico and came to mainland America. Within a year of arriving, you were dancing professionally, right?

A friend of my mom’s was visiting our apartment when I was bopping around and she said, “You know, I think maybe Rosita has a dancing talent. Can I take her to my dancing teacher?” My mom said yes. And I met Paco Cansino, who, it turned out, was Rita Hayworth’s uncle — she was born Margarita Cansino. I was probably 6 when he said to my mom, “I’m going to be dancing at a Greenwich Village nightclub, and I would love to have Rosita dance with me. I will partner her.” My mom thought that was swell, and we did it.

You made your Broadway debut at 13 …

We opened on Broadway and we closed the very next day.

The rest of your teens were a roller coaster — you got to realize your dream of going to Hollywood when you were scouted and signed by the studio of your dreams, MGM …

Yes, a talent scout, Dudley Wilkinson, saw me dance at a dancing school recital. He changed my whole life. After that, I had a meeting with Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer at the Waldorf. It was just a magical moment. I had done my best to look like Elizabeth Taylor — I did my eyebrows like her, I did my hair like her, I had a waist-cincher so that I could have a wasp-waist like her. When he saw me he said, “My God, she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!” And I thought, “Victory!”

But then the studio dropped you when you were just 19. How did you handle that?

I was devastated. They dropped my contract because they didn’t know what to do with me. I was in absolute shock because I honestly believed, because I was a very naive young girl, that I was going to be there forever and that L.B. Mayer was going to be my surrogate daddy.

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“When he saw me he said, ‘My God, she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!’ ” Rita Moreno recalls of her first meeting with Louis B. Mayer. “And I thought, ‘Victory!’ ”
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

As you say, MGM didn’t know what to do with you and, as Fox later would, had fallen into casting you as …

Island girls.

The one early exception was Singin’ in the Rain?

Exactly. It was wonderful. They put very light makeup on me, which was unusual because usually I was suffering with all the brown stuff — not that there’s anything bad about being brown, but I wasn’t and I’m not. And I wore a red wig. And I played a movie star named Zelda Zanders.

Later, over at Fox, you were part of another great musical, The King and I, but back in the sort of role you disliked …

Exactly. I remember being screen-tested for that part along with other young women. And France Nuyen was there — beautiful French [Asian] girl — and I remember thinking after I left the test, “Oh, she’s got to get it.” I was truly shocked when I got the part. I was a contract player, she was not, and maybe that had something to do with it. I always felt a little guilty about France because she should have been in it. She would have been beautiful in it.

That film’s choreography was done by Jerome Robbins, who would later choreograph and co-direct West Side Story, at least until he was fired. What was he like?

He had problems. He was very mean to the dancers, and it’s not like he was exactly warm and friendly to his other co-workers. But he had a dreadful reputation.

I was fascinated to learn from the documentary that one of your most special moments and one of the darkest moments of your life essentially overlapped. You had a yearslong relationship with Marlon Brando that reached its low point in 1961 when you attempted suicide …

I didn’t want to live anymore. Our relationship was just horrible, and the reason really, I wanted to end my life, was because he kept seeing other women. The truth is, he didn’t have respect for women. But I took it personally and thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” But I kept going back to him. He was like a drug. We were both that way with each other.

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Moreno with Marlon Brando on the set of his 1954 film Desiree.
20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

But 1961 was also the year in which you were as acclaimed as ever, for West Side Story. These two moments basically are at the same time.

They really are. I remember that when they took me to the hospital [after her suicide attempt], my first and only visitor was [West Side Story co-star] George Chakiris, who remains, to this day, my great and dear friend. I love him, he’s really special.

Heading in to the original West Side Story film, did you realize what a big deal it could become? Had you seen it on Broadway with Chita Rivera as Anita?

I did see it on Broadway. And in fact, what happened was, when we were finished with The King and I, Jerome Robbins said to me, “I’m going to do a musical on the stage in New York. I would love to have you audition for the part of Maria. Would you fly in and audition for me?” And I said, “Oh, of course.” But I never did because I was afraid I couldn’t carry a play. [Carol Lawrence ended up with the part.] Later on, I went to see the play and I saw Chita [as Anita], who was fabulous. And I thought, “I think I made a big mistake.”

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Rita Moreno with West Side Story co-star George Chakiris (left) and Rock Hudson at the 35th annual Academy Awards in 1962. Right: Moreno wore her 1962 Oscar gown a second time to the Academy Awards in 2018.
Bettmann/Getty Images; MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

According to the documentary, one song almost prevented you, years later, from playing Anita in the film version …

Oh, “America.” First of all, let me say that I auditioned my arse off. I auditioned the acting scenes. I auditioned the singing. I auditioned the dancing. And finally, I got the part. I was thrilled beyond measure. And I was sitting at home, celebrating all that, and I decided to look at the lyrics of “America,” because I wanted to learn them. And I see myself singing, “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases,” and I stopped and said, “Oh, my God. I can’t do that. I mean, what are my people going to think?” And I just began to cry because I thought, “I have to back out of this.” And I was about to call my agent, and I knew what he would say after all of my struggles to get this part — he would probably start screaming, “Are you fucking crazy? What are you talking about?” But literally, about two days later, I got a new script with new rewrites and new words to the verse of “America.” People think I went to Stephen Sondheim. I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t know him. Now it said, “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.” I thought, “That I can do.”

Almost 60 years — and an EGOT — later, you get a call about another West Side Story

I get a call and it’s Steven Spielberg on the phone. It had gotten around that he was going to do West Side Story, and he said he would like to talk to me about playing a role in it. I was trying to be very delicate, but I said to Steven — and he’s one of my favorite directors ever — I said, “You know, I don’t do cameos. I just honestly feel it might hurt the movie.” And he interrupted me and says, “Oh, God, no, this is not a cameo. This is a real acting part.” I said, “Really? Please send me a script!” He said, “Absolutely.” And that’s how I wound up playing a role in it — not Anita, obviously, but Doc’s wife. Doc ran the candy store where the Jets hung out, and I am now Doc’s widow, Valentina.

Was it weird being on set and seeing somebody else playing Anita?

It was weird. But actually, I thought that Ariana DeBose was a great choice. Ariana is an Afro-Latina, and I’ve always felt that Anita should be that. She should be like Chita Rivera, who also is kind of on the tan side. And Ariana is superb. But she’s a terrific dancer. She was so nervous, she couldn’t talk to me. I didn’t expect that. So I took her to lunch the first time I met her and said, “Let’s sit down and get to know each other a little bit.”

I heard you may have given her one suggestion …

I did. I said, “I want to give you a gift. You certainly do not have to use it, but it’s an acting point.” And I don’t want to say what it was because I don’t want people to be looking for that. But I said, “There’s something I didn’t do in one of the scenes that I absolutely should have done. It’s a thing about dynamics, raising your voice and then lowering it for effect. And I regret that to this very day, I really do. It’s hard for me to watch. But I don’t think Robert Wise was the kind of director who might have helped me to get there. Jerome Robbins would have, but he was no longer with us.

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From top: Moreno as Valentina, a new role written for her in the remake of West Side Story; Ariana DeBose as Anita, whom Moreno has called “a great choice” to play the iconic role.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

We are living in a time of greater awareness and sensitivity about the way people and groups are depicted in movies. You experienced this when speaking up in defense of your friend Lin-Manuel Miranda with regard to In the Heights, and then correcting yourself. And I just wondered …

You know what? It worries me terribly that we have watch groups of our own people. That is scary to me. I don’t like that. I think it’s wrong. And I understand why it happened and why it’s happening, but I think we have to be very careful that we don’t turn against each other, for Pete’s sake.

But West Side Story

It’s not going to have that problem. At all. I need to talk about Steven and [screenwriter] Tony Kushner’s contribution to this film. One of the very first things they did was they called the University of Puerto Rico and sought feedback. I’ll tell you, they turned themselves into pretzels, those two, trying to get it right. There isn’t a Hispanic in this movie that isn’t Hispanic. It’s all for real, and they are their own colors because we are many colors. But they made every effort. There wasn’t a week that went by that they didn’t have someone lecture them. They brought in academics, and everybody had to hear these off-the-cuff lectures. Everybody. The Jets and the Sharks. What it was like then, all of this. In fact, the first week I joined them, which was for costume fittings and rehearsals, they were doing the dance rehearsals, and they had somebody in. And then they co-opted me and Tony said, “Please tell them about your life.” Because he knows my story. And he’d say, “Oh wait, you forgot something. What about this and that?”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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