In today’s Toast series, we celebrate the 90th birthday of Rita Moreno, the first Latin actress to win an Oscar for her brilliant, spellbinding performance in 1961’s iconic musical film West Side Story, and who graces the screen in Steven Spielberg’s dazzling 2021 rendition, currently showing in theaters.
The black lava rooftop pulsated that night — the rhythm of the shoe taps glorious and passionate on its surface, reverberating in ripples. Lit by the moon, and the living room lamps in the nearby buildings, a fire was burning inside the gang. It told of the New York City immigrant experience, all of its exciting, dizzying positives, and all of its low, doldrum negatives. These Puerto Ricans called the Sharks were living through the grease and the promise. And center stage was Rita Moreno. Olé!
With one throw of her lavender dress, the bottom flaring out in a beautiful hypnotizing cascade, and with one lyric of “Skyscrapers bloom in America,” we fell helpless under her spell. Yes, Rita Moreno, the feisty, exuberant scene-stealer in 1961’s iconic musical film West Side Story, became the first Latin actress to win an Oscar.
And with good reason. She embodied every inch of her Puerto Rican character Anita, allowing this character to shed light on important social issues permeating mid-century USA. Eternal congrats to Rita Moreno for her superb, ground-breaking performance that opened the doors to diversity in Hollywood, and whose excellent win is still positively impacting Hollywood and the world today.
Born on December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and moving to New York City in 1936, Rita Moreno turns an impressive 90 years young today. Happy Birthday! Better still, this legendary actress has a new movie that just hit theaters yesterday – none other than the highly anticipated Steven Spielberg West Side Story remake. Wait, really? Is this a serendipitous “perfect storm” all Hollywood-style? She’s in the new West Side Story remake?
Rita Moreno’s Return to West Side Story
Indeed, she is. In addition to her producer role, Rita Moreno plays a newly-conceived character called Valentina, who is the widow of Doc, the candy store owner from the original 1961 film. Musical theater lovers and classic movie buffs everywhere are going pleasantly crazy this December. The excitement is overwhelming!
But stepping away from the wondrous world that is the two 1961 and 2021 West Side Story films, Rita Moreno remains an iconic actress. She is one of only a handful of performers in American entertainment who has achieved EGOT status. What’s that? It’s someone who has won an Emmy (television), Grammy (music), Oscar (film), and Tony (theater). Rita Moreno is in the ranks of stars like Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, and Mel Brooks.
Typecast early on in her career to fill ethnic supporting roles such as Native American, Egyptian, Hawaiian, etc., these roles often did little to showcase Moreno’s acting skills, as they were often intended to be one-dimensional “seductive” roles — playing on the “exotic” perception of her appearance. But Moreno persevered, starring in some of Hollywood’s most beloved musical films in the 1950s and early ‘60s. She then gave exceptional performances in 1970s and ‘80s films like Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Ritz (1976), and The Four Seasons (1981). Throughout this time, she also branched out into TV, namely endearing children’s television shows like The Electric Company and Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?
While she still frequently played ethnic roles, Moreno was very often playing her own Puerto Rican or Hispanic ethnicity, taking on characters that had depth, and subsequently shining light on that person’s unique personal experience. In essence, Moreno gave dignity to her character’s life, ultimately allowing her audiences to look past the ethnicity and into that person’s soul — similar to her brilliant Anita depiction in West Side Story.
Rita Moreno’s Positive Legacy
Ms. Moreno has been an important, ever-present, reassuring fixture in the entertainment world for over seven decades now. Yes, her first movie was 1950’s So Young, So Bad starring the lovely Paul Henreid and Anne Francis. What nostalgia! Coming up in the long-gone Golden Age of Cinema, and dating superstars like Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley (yes, you read correctly!), Rita Moreno is truly a ground-breaking, glittering, Hollywood treasure. Better still, catch her in the occasional interview, or the 2021 documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, and she seems like a kind, intelligent, and down-to-earth person, too.
That in mind, here’s a 90th birthday toast to the great Rita Moreno. The below movies are her three “larger than life” musical films from that classic 1950s and early ‘60s era. Though she was a supporting player in each (and not a leading lady), it’s downright amazing that she was in not one, but a whopping three, blockbuster musicals. She and Judy Garland are quite possibly the only actors who can claim this prestigious, mind-boggling distinction.
Better still, her three characters of the ostentatious starlet, lovelorn concubine, and passionate immigrant are each luminous in their own right. What to watch on Saturday night? Try one of these melodious Old Hollywood gems. Thank you, Rita Moreno, for your enduringly vibrant and triumphant spirit.
Legendary Rita Moreno Musicals
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Call it Gone With the Wind (1939) or Casablanca (1942) of Old Hollywood musicals, Singin’ in the Rain might just be the best musical of all time. According to the AFI (American Film Institute) it absolutely is ranked #1. Starring the amazing Hollywood superstar dancer Gene Kelly and the amazingly sprightly newcomer Debbie Reynolds, it’s a charming, foot-tapping tale set in Hollywood circa the 1920s. It’s all about “silent” movies versus the “talkies,” and one brash blonde wannabe-actress who just can’t make the transition. Ugh. As for Rita Moreno, she’s only in four scenes, but her contribution to the film’s opening is pure gold, and enough justification to grab a gander at her in this legendary flick. She plays a “high on herself” young actress. Moreno is garish, dressed in 1920s flapper garb, and she saunters up that Tinseltown catwalk like a true diva. How captivating.
Moreno was new to Hollywood when she made this movie, and was only 21 years old, so it was spectacular that she landed this role. Further, in later years, she’s waxed grateful over her Singin’ in the Rain experience, as she pleasantly recalls that she was, thankfully enough, not cast in an “ethnic” part. The fact that Moreno had a positive experience in making Singin’ in the Rain only adds to the viewing pleasure of this truly magical, effervescent film. Cue those umbrellas and raindrops!
2. The King and I (1956)
Here’s Moreno playing a Burmese concubine, who is a “gift” for the intimidating, titular King of Siam (Thailand) played by the legendary Yul Brynner. Known as one of the most visually majestic, grand, and iconic movie musicals ever, The King and I is a powerhouse musical if ever there is one. It’s hard to go wrong with actors like Yul Brynner who won an Oscar for his role (making his awesome shaved head the signature look of his career), then multiple Oscar-nominated Deborah Kerr who is superb as the British schoolteacher hankering for that “house adjoining the palace” as she was promised. Then add in a magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein musical score, and the King and I is an enchanting musical dream.
What rarified air then for the talented Rita Moreno to step into – and fill with her own unique spirit. Though her casting as Tuptim, Burmese concubine, is a prime example of the previously mentioned “ethnic” typecasting that was unfortunately prevalent in Old Hollywood, this fact doesn’t diminish Moreno’s skill in executing this role. Her ability to convey sadness, shame, romantic love, and fear (oh no, does she get flogged by the king for escaping the palace?) is thoroughly engaging. Like the bright kaleidoscope of colors that light up this movie, Moreno shows wonderful emotional depth in her sweet, beautiful, though pained Tuptim. She’s a huge contributor to the success of this behemoth film. Let’s hear it for Moreno’s magnificent Tuptim.
3. West Side Story (1961)
We can only surmise that this movie must’ve been a “coming home” for Ms. Moreno. Set in her old childhood stomping grounds of New York City, and with her depicting a Puerto Rican immigrant, West Side Story is a film where you can almost imagine those Old Hollywood studio execs saying beforehand, “Yup, Moreno as Anita, it’ll be right in her wheelhouse.” Then they’d take a confident cigarette puff, right? Casting perfection aside, Moreno truly is gorgeous as Anita, best friend to Maria (Natalie Wood’s character).
Similar to Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I, West Side Story is an iconic musical that defined its era. It’s about two rival gangs, the Jets (Whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans), who battle it out in their Manhattan neighborhood. If that’s not dangerous enough, Tony (from the Jets) falls in love with Maria (from the Sharks). It’s an intentional, modern take on the classic Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet love story. Unpacking a lot, West Side Story challenges its audiences to review its perception of race, opportunity, and ultimately love. And Rita Moreno is right there lighting up the screen in her singularly magnificent way. She knows just the right notes to hit (literally and figuratively), and her Anita is downright revelatory.
Jam-packed with wondrous musical and dance numbers, West Side Story is a dazzling masterpiece that is the crown jewel of Rita Moreno’s career. Immensely thrilling, that’s West Side Story. That’s also the great Rita Moreno.
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I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.