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Rita Moreno: West Side Story's Young Anita, Then And Now

Icons | April 27, 2019

Rita Moreno as Anita in 'West Side Story' (1961); in a publicity photo circa 1955. Source: (Getty; Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hollywood didn't know what to do with Rita Moreno: when her West Side Story (1961) performance brought her an Oscar, but not better roles, she went on her way. Rita Moreno, who was five years old when she came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, had endured the stereotypical ethnic roles and flourished -- and she has continued to flourish while controlling her own destiny. If you didn't catch her in West Side Story, you might recall her yelling "Hey you guys!" on The Electric Company or consoling inmates on the gritty prison drama Oz. She's coming off a three-year stint on the Netflix remake of One Day At A Time. She's among the most celebrated performers of all time.

Moreno began performing on Broadway at 13 and had her first film role in the 1950 reform-school girl movie So Young, So Bad. She’s best known as Anita in West Side Story, a role that netted her an Academy Award, although her life can’t be distilled down to a single performance.

Not only is she one of the most acclaimed performers of the 20th century, but she spent nearly a decade locked in a torrid love affair with Marlon Brando that included a tryst of sorts with Elvis Presley. Somehow she also found time to work on children’s television. Moreno’s story is far from over, and she can still be seen on television today.

She Felt Typecast In Her Early Roles

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Before her big break in West Side Story, Moreno was mostly cast as an immigrant or a Native American due to the dark complexion of her skin. Aside from her roles in The King and I and Singin’ in the Rain, Moreno was typecast, something that made her consider leaving Hollywood altogether in the early ‘60s.

Moreno says that after a decade of B-pictures she didn’t need to read a script to know what she was being asked to do. She wrote:

I knew what my scripts would say before I opened them: ‘Enter Conchita.’ I played handmaidens, Indian squaws and Mexican dancers…

The West Side Story Shoot Was Anything But A Fairytale For Moreno

Source: (United Artists)

As Anita, Moreno blew away the other girls on screen in West Side Story - even her co-star Natalie Wood. Even though the film went on to be one of the most commercially and critically successful Hollywood musicals ever, Moreno has said that the atmosphere on the set was fairly toxic. In her biography, she says that she hated the makeup used to make the Puerto Rican actors more homogenous and that Natalie Wood was standoffish at best. She wrote:

It was uncomfortable for Hispanics to see Natalie Wood play Maria, especially because we’d heard that Natalie hadn’t wanted the part, but had been so prevailed upon to take it that she couldn’t refuse… This might explain her nonengaging demeanor with us ‘Gypsies’ throughout the shoot. It might have been helpful had we been able to bond with Natalie, but she kept her distance.

Even though the shoot was a drag, it showcased Moreno’s talents and earned her an Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress. 

Following 'West Side Story,' Moreno Left Hollywood

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In spite of her Academy Award win, the roles that came Moreno's way after West Side Story was more of the same. She was offered “demeaning” roles as “dusky maidens” or Latina sexpots, nothing that Moreno was interested in. Rather than take the roles Moreno dipped out of Hollywood for nearly a decade. She explained:

Ha, ha. I showed them. I didn't make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar.... Before West Side Story, I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing.

She Had A Protracted Love Affair With Marlon Brando And Dalliances With The King

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While filming The Night of the Following Day in 1968, Moreno met the man with whom she would have a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship -- Marlon Brando. In her memoir, Rita Moreno, the actress writes of her time with the star:

We were locked in the ultimate folie à deux, a crazy love that lasted for years, until one day I quite literally was forced out of a coma and had to choose life over him… To say that he was a great lover — sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul. Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known.

The two continued their volatile relationship throughout two of Brando’s marriages, with Moreno unable to cut ties with the man she loved. To make Brando jealous Moreno went on dates with actors like Dennis Hopper and even Elvis Presley himself. Although, she admits that The King was hardly a hunk of burning love in the bedroom. She writes of her dates with Elvis:

My dates… nearly always concluded in a tender tussle on my living-room floor, with Elvis’ pelvis in that famous gyration straining against his taut trousers. I could feel him thrust against my clothed body, and expecting the next move… but it never came… Maybe Elvis was inhibited by inbred religious prohibitions or an Oedipal complex, or maybe he simply preferred the thrill of a denied release. Whatever put the brakes on the famous pelvis, it ground to a halt at a certain point and that was it.

Finally, after an eight-year on and off relationship, Moreno attempted suicide by taking a handful of pills. She survived the attempt, but her therapist begged her to stay away from Brando. According to Moreno, her former flame parted ways but stayed friendly until his death. 

Moreno Dedicated Herself To Children’s Entertainment In The ‘70s

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Rather than deal with the typecasting of Hollywood, Moreno stopped accepting scripts that didn’t work for her and appeared on The Electric Company, a variety show meant to get kids into reading. She starred in the show alongside Morgan Freeman and performed in sketches with Carol Burnett, Diane Keaton, Dean Martin, and Big Bird. One of the things that made Moreno so great on this show was her dedication to staying serious rather than talking down to young viewers. And if you watched The Electric Company, you will remember the opening line:

Hey, you gu-u-u-ys!

That was Rita. The educational program lasted from 1971 to 1977 and after the show went off the air Moreno was all over prime-time television. She appeared on everything from The Muppet Show to The Rockford Files, and even The Love Boat

The Woman Has A PEGOT!

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For those of you non-industry types, an EGOT is what happens when a performer wins an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony over the course of their career. It’s not an official title by any means, but it is something to lord over your peers. Moreno’s tallied up a serious list of awards, but the most prominent awards are her Tony for The Ritz, her two Emmy Awards for The Rockford Files and The Muppet Show, and the Grammy she won for her appearance on PBS’s “Electric Company” album.

But Moreno hasn’t stopped there, in 2019 she became the first Latina to win a Peabody Career Achievement Award which gives her the vaulted status of a PEGOT achiever. The only two other recipients of this variety of awards are director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and actress Barbara Streisand. 

Rita Moreno Gets Back To 'Story'

Rita Moreno and Stephen Tobolowsky in One Day at a Time (2017). Source: IMDB

At the age of 87, Moreno is still acting -- and following her pattern of doing TV in chunks. Her most recent project has been playing Lydia on all 39 episodes of the Netflix series One Day At A Time (2017-2019), which just released its third and (unfortunately) final season. Prior to that she appeared in every episode of the Fran Drescher series Happily Divorced (2011-2013) and the Jimmy Smits series Cane (2007). Fans of edgy premium cable shows will also recall her as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, her character on Oz (1997-2003).

Moreno's next project has an all-too familiar feel -- in a good way. She's signed on to play Valentina (a reworked version of the character Doc) in a remake of West Side Story to be directed by Steven Spielberg.

Tags: Ladies | Marlon Brando | Rita Moreno | The Electric Company | Then And Now | West Side Story | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.