Rita Moreno breathes life into new West Side Story

Photo ©Moira Jean Sullivan, Castro Theater, December 12, 2021 San Francisco

Steven Spielberg decided to make an updated version of West Side Story several years ago and due to the pandemic, the film was not released until December 10th. There are no real differences as far as quality of the films considering the 50-year time difference from 1961 to 2021, and I shared this first impression with Rita Moreno who sat next to me towards the end of the screening at the Castro Theater on Dec 12. Both films are excellent but there are differences as far as the representation of people of color, specifically the Puerto Ricans and the transgender character Anybody’s played by Iris Menas--- who does not want to be a girl but a boy. Moreno explained how this part of the film is subject to censor in China.

Rita Moreno attended the screening in full regalia in an outstanding outfit of crimson and yellow and she was jubilant, a charismatic actress who celebrated her 90-year birthday and we were able to all sing happy birthday to her. She explained that after getting an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role as Anita in the 1961 version there weren’t any forthcoming roles, and it was explained to her that it was a one-off type of a film and a one-off type of a role. I recall listening to Joan Chen in San Francisco at the 2012 Asian American Film Festival explaining how after she did Last Emperor in China (1987) that there weren't any roles that should have come as they do to white actresses in a similar situation. One wonders if it isn't the same for Rita Moreno; she explained that Tony Kushner updated the film and gave it political impact and that is very clear. The set design of the film is an abandoned rundown cityscape that's being demolished. Lieutenant Shrank (Corey Stoll) explains that in a few years time the neighborhood will be gentrified and white and Puerto Ricans will be doormen. Spielberg decided not to subtitle any of the film in a bold and innovative move.

Moreno’s character Anita from 1961 in this film is a seamstress who works to pay rent and wants to have her own dress shop. Bernardo (David Alvarez), her boyfriend, wants her to have six kids and then she knows she won't have her dress shop. The famous refrain in Leonard Bernstein’s America “I like to be in America” resounds sung by the women whose lives do improve as women as opposed to the men who still fight in the streets for power like Bernardo.

The stars of the show judging by the applause at the Castro are Anita (Ariana DeBose) and newcomer Rachel Zegler who plays Maria and above all Rita Moreno’s role is as the wife of drug store owner Valentina who was married to Doc, and who received the longest and strongest standing ovation at the Castro. It is inspirational how a 90-year-old woman can hold the threads together of this film, but it was her ambition as executive producer for realistic communication about the two films. The violence in the film is just as absurd as it was in 1961 but it all centers around the power of one gun and out of control men shouting about territory.

Ansel Elgot does an adequate job as Tony and the chemistry between him, and Maria is believable. Rita Moreno explained Ariana DeBose ‘s Anita (Ariana DeBose) was outstanding, and she also said that the actress hid during the production and was in awe of her on the set. We know the story of West Side Story from the songs which move the film forward, but Spielberg’s film is excellent in character development and set design, as well as choreography. There is one song sung by Rita Moreno - "Somewhere" and what that song means according to Moreno is somewhere there is a place for us - people of color and people who are disenfranchised due to gender and class diversity. West Side Story 2021 updates the political content of the streets of the city and Rita Moreno has done an outstanding job in this film and will be forever remembered for not only her role as a young actress in 1961 and who defies age, color, gender and ethnicity in 2021. For Movie Magazine this is Moira Sulliva

© 2021 - Moira Jean Sullivan- Air Date: 12/12/2021
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