Forty-two years ago, a film came along that would break all the rules and walk away with all the awards. In 1961, West Side Story hit the silver screen and nothing—camera angles, film editing, sound—was ever the same again. Certainly, the musical about love amid the rivalry of two New York City gangs changed the life of Rita Moreno. At 19, the Puerto Rican-born actress was cast in the role of Anita—unforgettable in the rooftop scene, singing and high-kicking her way through America. For her work, Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, one of 10 Academy Awards nabbed by the film. Now, at 61, she is still front and centre, promoting the West Side Story Special Edition DVD box set (recently released, catching the wave of renewed interest in musicals thanks to the huge success of Chicago). Does Moreno ever get tired of talking about West Side Story? “Hell no! It’s quite something to be attached to a classic like this,” she says. “It’s one of those rare instances when it was the film that was the star.”
While Moreno was frustrated with type-
casting early in her career, after West Side Story she starred in other major films such as Carnal Knowledge (1971) with Jack Nicholson and The Four Seasons (1981) with Alan Alda and Carol Burnett. She also won a Tony Award for her 1975 role on Broadway in The Ritz, and a Grammy for her work on the 1970s PBS TV program The Electric Company. But like many of the actors who appeared in West Side Story—such as Richard Beymer, who played the lead role of Tony, and George Chakiris, who was gang leader Bernardo, Anita’s boyfriend—Moreno’s career was overshadowed by the film. “We didn’t have a clue as to whether it would be a success,” she says. “In fact, if we stopped and thought about it, we all had our doubts.” Just as the movie has lasted, so have the friendships that Moreno made with the other actors. “We’re always reunioning—all the kids,” she says. “I call them the kids but we’re all old farts! Some of these guys don’t have half their hair anymore. They have paunches.” And Monero’s kicks aren’t nearly as high.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.