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EXCLUSIVE: Why West Side Story changed everything for Rita Moreno after years in Hollywood "blackface"

And she spills the beans on which star was "the worst person to hook up with" in Hollywood.

By Tiffany Dunk
On her first day in Hollywood, 16-year-old Rita Moreno entered the MGM lot with equal parts trepidation and excitement.
A talent scout had spotted the Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-raised teenager at a Spanish dance recital. Rita was signed on the spot days later by studio boss Louis B. Mayer himself, so blown away was he by her resemblance to another teenage star.
"My God," he'd declared as she arrived for their meeting (accompanied by her mother Rosa) at his penthouse suite in New York's Waldorf Astoria. "She's a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!"
"I'll never forget that first day in the studios, it was so exciting," says Rita, now 90 and speaking to The Weekly from her home in Berkeley, California.
"I practically moved in there. I visited the sets, visited the commissary where they served food to the big stars. They had a steam table with real food, things like apple pie and Boston baked beans and roast beef with gravy. Stuff I never had at home – we had rice and beans. It was lunchtime when I was taken there and in walks Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor. I thought I would wet my knickers. Can you imagine?"
"I'll never forget that first day in the studios, it was so exciting," says Rita, now 90. (Getty)
With that, Rita emits a hoot, clearly still tickled that "this 16-year-old girl from the ghetto" could have ever found herself in such a situation.
Growing up, Elizabeth was her idol – a young girl who, like herself, would make her dreams of movie stardom come true. For when she'd arrived in the US in 1936, at the age of five, there had been no Latina actresses to aspire to follow. Or rather there were, but they'd been forced to make themselves over to lose all traces of their true ethnicity.
The most famous at that time was Rita Hayworth – or Margarita Cansino as she'd been born – who'd dyed her dark hair auburn and undergone an anglicised name change to play all-American parts.
"She's a good example of what happened at that time when you were Hispanic – you did your best not to be," says Rita.
Bizarrely, it was Hayworth's uncle Paco who would prove to be young Rita Moreno's (or Rosita, as she went by then) introduction to showbusiness. Not only did he teach her to dance, but he chose the talented youngster to accompany him at a nightclub appearance in Greenwich Village.
"He was all of five feet tall and ferocious looking, he was little but mighty – he was like a bull," Rita recalls now.
"We did a partner dance with castanets and all I could think was that the audience absolutely adored me. How could they not? Who is not going to adore a little six-year-old girl with great big eyes and a Spanish dance costume? And I thought, 'This is for me. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.'"
Fast forward to that fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer and Rita was cast in her first film, 1950's The Toast of New Orleans. But unlike the famous Rita who came before her, rather than whiteface, it was blackface she'd find herself donning in a succession of roles in which she played a variety of "exotic" women.
"Native girls, island girls or very over-sexed little senoritas," she recalls. "When I see pictures of me with that dark, dark make-up which obviously didn't suit my particular face I always feel so embarrassed for myself and sad."
Each time she felt a role would propel her beyond the stereotype, she was disappointed. She had a scene-stealing role in Singin' in the Rain (1952), playing vaudeville star Zelda Zanders.
"That's my Christmas movie," she exclaims now. "I watch it almost every year. I love that movie and of course one of my heroes was in it, Gene Kelly. He was a star."
Rita wanted to escape the stereotyped roles she was offered in her early career, but struggled to break free. (Getty)
Her turn as Tuptim – the Burmese former concubine of Yul Brynner's king in 1956's The King and I – also failed to lead her to meatier roles. But that wasn't the only obstacle she was facing.
In the 1950s Hollywood was run by men. And not all of them had the best interests of the young ingenues they signed at heart.
"It was terrifying," Rita says of the pressure – both implied and very real – that was put on young girls. "I felt very weak and powerless. I was one of those young women who was afraid to say no because that was how I was brought up. So, whenever some famous person or executive would make moves, I would be terrified. I had no power whatsoever."
Early in her career, she says, she was raped by her agent. Yet she stayed with him, not even realising that was what had actually happened to her, so indoctrinated was she by the notion she should acquiesce to whatever was expected of her. And then came Marlon Brando.
In 1955 he was the hottest man in town; a sex symbol and an Academy Award winner. When Rita had visited the set of his film Désirée she was a goner.
"I was instantly attracted to him, he was famous and he was powerful – and he was powerful because he was famous," she says of the affair which would last on and off for eight years, eventually leading her to attempt to end her own life.
"Of course, he was maybe the worst person in the world to hook up with because he was dreadful with women, he was just awful. He always had a woman on his arm, women in his life all over the place. And when I realised I wasn't the only one – which shows you truly how naïve I was – I was heartbroken. Yet I kept seeing him. At one point I thought, 'I can't be beaten up emotionally all the time any more. And the only way I know not to have to live through this again is to get rid of myself.' It was a horrible, sad time."
Salvation came in the form of work. Jerome Robbins had been Rita's choreographer on The King and I. And he suggested she audition for the 1961 film he would be co-directing – a screen version of hit musical West Side Story.
"My God, I wanted that part so badly," Rita says of her role in West Side Story. (Getty)
"My God, I wanted that part so badly. I did a screen test, I auditioned in person, I did an acting scene, then dancing. I worked so hard to get that part, so when I did, I just burst into tears. I was beside myself with happiness."
Anita was a first for Rita – and for audiences. Finally there was a role model for girls who'd had no-one who looked or sounded like them to look up to.
"For the first time I was playing a young Latina who had an opinion and who voiced it," she says. "A Latina who had feelings of dignity about herself and a ton of self-respect. So of course, inevitably she became my role model very late in my life."
The set was riotously happy, Rita recalls. Jerome and co-director Robert Wise forbade the actors playing rival gang members in the Sharks and the Jets from socialising.
"They always wanted there to be some tension between us," Rita smiles. "So, it was always the Sharks, the Sharks, the Sharks. We were a very raucous group, as Latinos can be, and I was certainly the leader of that kind of band."
Rita won the awards for Best Supporting Actress at both the Golden Globes and Oscars. (Getty)
Once again, however, Rita was forced to wear dark make-up – despite her Puerto Rican heritage.
"It kept streaking through because it was so goddamn dark," she shrugs. "It was kind of insulting but if you were going to be in this movie, you had to do that."
That went too for leading lady Natalie Wood.
"She was ... okay," says Rita, choosing her words carefully when asked about their working relationship. "She wasn't very ... warm and friendly. She wasn't cold either. She was kind of indifferent. She did ask me to help her with the accent. That lasted only two days and then she lost interest. Let's put it this way – we were not close."
When West Side Story was released in October that year, it was a hit. Rita was nominated as Best Supporting Actress at both the Golden Globes and Oscars. Nobody was more surprised than her when she won both.
Finally, she thought, her day had come – no more would she be forced into blackface, to play the roles she'd fought for a decade to shrug off. In fact, were they to be offered to her, she said, she would instantly refuse.
"Well, I showed them," she says with a grim chuckle. "The only thing I got offered after that was more gang movies on a lesser scale. I didn't work for a year. I could not get a job. It was heartbreaking and frightening ... I thought my career was over."
Utilising the inner strength she'd fought hard to attain, Rita switched agents – and bided her time. She had a blazing comeback starring opposite her former love Marlon in 1968's The Night of the Following Day (the slap she delivered to him on-screen was the final outpouring of emotion over their affair which would lead to some long-awaited healing).
In the '70s she moved into children's television and won a Grammy for her work on PBS series The Electric Company. She did Broadway and won a Tony; television and won two Emmys.
Through the '80s, '90s, noughties and beyond she continued evolving, picking up awards not only for her work but also her activism. And when word spread in 2018 that West Side Story was getting a remake – one that would only cast Latino actors in Latino roles – she was among the first to hear the news.
"I thought it was a mistake," she says candidly. "That movie is so damned iconic, you know? But then on the other hand, my favourite director in the world, Steven Spielberg, was going to direct it. And I knew this much: he can do just about anything that he sets his mind to."
Rita attends the 93rd Annual Academy Awards in 2021. (Getty)
The part of Valentina was created for Rita; she was also made an executive producer.
"She's a wonderful, sweet character. She's nothing like Anita," Rita says of Valentina, who is the widow of drug store owner Doc (played in 1961 by Ned Glass).
"The original film was more about the singing and the dancing and the music. The social stuff was kind of glossed over ... Obviously this version still has glorious music, fabulous dancing and all of the wonderful things that made the original an iconic film. And it's one of the few times [in my life] I've looked forward to watching my scenes. I love myself in this movie – can you imagine?"
And with that Rita is ready to sign off, but not before adding that she's also thrilled with a recent film biography about her life. You've lived quite a life, we tell her, upon parting.
"Oh, indeed I have," she agrees. "And I've lived to tell about it!"
West Side Story is in cinemas now. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is available for digital download. If you've found this story distressing, you can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You can read this story and many others in the January issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.

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