Rita Moreno as Anita del Carmen in West Side Story
Best Supporting Actress at the 34th Annual Oscars (1961)
“We won’t bite you … till we know you better.”
In this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) fall in love, but can’t overcome their massive differences: one of them is white, and the other … is also white, but is doing a Puerto Rican accent. Sigh.
The thing that stands out most about Anita is what a loyal friend she is to Maria. Every time, Maria makes the worst possible decision, and Anita tries to get her to do the right thing, but also ultimately supports her, making sure that she doesn’t get into trouble, but recognizing that she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. In return, Maria is a completely callous asshole about Anita’s feelings, to the point where Anita has to say, hey, maybe don’t date the guy who JUST murdered my boyfriend and YOUR BROTHER?!?! Even then, Anita tries to take Tony a message from Maria, which means she walks right into an awful Jets’ harassment ring, and it’s only at that point when Anita finally says fuck it, and, oops, tells a teeny-tiny lie that gets Tony killed.
Anita’s misguided loyalty extends to her other primary relationship with America itself. Anita is Ms. Assimilation: she’s all about the U.S. of A. She uses the song America to really put down Puerto Rico as a slovenly shithole, and it sucks that the major Puerto Rican actress in the movie is put in the position of bashing it. But obviously, Anita feels that the U.S. offers her opportunities that she didn’t have before, and in particular, believes that it’s less patriarchal and opressive. But then, America takes away everything she cares about, leaving her life a wreck, and honestly, maybe Bernardo was right when he pointed out how much America sucks. The events of this movie are rough for all of its characters, but Anita has an especially hard time of it.
Rita Moreno is an American legend, standing out as an incredible performer with a long-storied career. Anita is probably the character that she’s most well-known for, and it’s delightful that she got to inhabit someone so complex. Anita is a sidekick, but she has dashes of both heroism and villainy. It means that Moreno gets to be, in turn, the sultry beauty, the sassy best friend, the grieving war widow, and the venomous liar. She flows from one mode to another with ease.
Moreno has a captivating personality: I found myself smiling every time she appeared on screen, and unlike Maria, I could actually imagine someone seeing her across a crowded gym and falling in love immediately. She’s an excellent singer and dancer, and importantly, she shows not only her talent, but her humor. Plus, in a movie with a lot of iffy casting, it’s lovely to see Moreno actually represent for Puerto Ricans. It’s much easier to look past some of the film’s issues when it ultimately lifts up a Puerto Rican actress.
Everyone knows West Side Story, right? I don’t have to sell it: if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, fair enough. It’s not a movie that means much to me personally, but it has SO many great qualities. First of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous: I genuinely think it might be one of the best-looking movies of all time. The coloring, the lighting, all of it is absolutely beautiful. Somebody made so many smart decisions in adapting it from theater, giving us lots of interesting moments, and cuts. The tone is perfect. I love how dystopian it is: there are almost no adults, and they have no power, and life seems like shit, so it brings to mind a post-apocalyptic future where rabid teens run amok. The drama is very Shangri-Las, so overblown and silly, but you end up swept up anyway. And of course, the music is iconic.
Was the Oscar deserved?
Yes, Rita Moreno is an EGOT queen!