Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar® for her role as Anita in "West Side Story", says she "hated" to speak with an exaggerated Puerto Rican accent, and to see the Sharks all the exact same skin color, she told a rapt audience July 9 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.
She said she told the film's makeup man "I hate having to be the same color of all the Sharks (Puerto Rican gang). We Puerto Ricans are all different colors. I'm offended by that.'"
He said, "'What are you, racist?'"
The actress, born Rosita Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931, and emigrated to the U.S. at age 5, explained, "I hated to speak with that accent -- I spoke this swell English."
Also, Anita "should have had a New York accent from the barrio, like Rosie Perez."
(Despite all this, Moreno termed Anita "my first role model. She had a sense of dignity, self-respect, responsibility, and was strong and loving.")
Moreno pointed out, "The Jets (Anglo-ish gang members) got it too. They were all dyed blond -- and the hair colorist was terrible."
She said Jerome Robbins, who shared Best Director Oscar with Robert Wise, wanted "a real contrast" between the two gangs. Robbins was not only the co-director and choreographer, he also conceived "West Side Story", the 1957 Broadway musical based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and their rival relatives, the Capulets and Montagues.
Moreno thought "no one would go to" the 1961 film -- or if they did, they'd walk out. It wasn't a traditional movie musical with elaborate sets and costumes, "deliberately very dull', and "that singing in those voices!" She warbled screechily, "Toniiiiight."
"I thought,'Oh, s---. I thought the audience'd walk out," said the still-exquisite 82-year-old actress, singer, and dancer.
Although she's known for her fantastic mambo and other fiery dancing in that role, and although Robbins badly wanted her to play Anita, Moreno had not danced for about a decade by the time of the film's auditions (separate from the acting and singing audition).
"I hadn't lifted a foot," she said. So, for the month before the dance audition, she took dance classes each day for 11 hours. She got so sick she had a fever, and turned "the color of eggplant." When she recuperated a bit, she asked had a friend who'd played Anita on the road, to teach her parts of the character's main dances. By luck, those were the two sections the dance auditioner taught her.
When Robbins called him, he told the great choreographer, "'I feel she hasn't danced in a while, but I think we can beat it out of her. She has no style. But she's very talented, fiery, funny... and what's really impressive -- she learns so fast.'"
Moreno summed it up, "I loved being in that movie...It had such soul, such alma. The choreography's just brilliant. It's a treasure."
The American Film Institute agrees -- "West Side Story" ranks #41 among 100 on AFI's list of "America's Greatest Movies". And the film won ten Oscars, including Best Picture. Click here for movie clip.
The event celebrated the exhibit, and Moreno's many accomplishments. She was the first person, and one of the few performers to win all four major entertainment awards, (two) Emmys®, a Grammy®, Tony®, as well as the Oscar, among many other top honors, plus America's highest civilian awards: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Freedom.
Rita Moreno is a national treasure.