By Eric J. Grimm
On February 23, at the legendary Palace Theater in Washington Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted a screening of the 1961 Academy Award-winning movie musical West Side Story featuring a pre-screening discussion with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the film. Moreno, one of the few entertainers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (and the only Puerto Rican to do so) was a huge draw for Miranda’s “Sunday Movies at the Palace” series. 1,600 people filled the enormous former movie palace to see the recent Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, who proved as feisty and lovely as she did during her popular acceptance speech last month.
While the film is beloved by many, Moreno addressed some lingering issues with the film’s production and reception. She expressed disappointment with the way that the film portrayed Puerto Ricans. Moreno is one of the few Puerto Ricans in the film; the rest, including the Greek George Chakiris, wore dark makeup and sported thick accents. On the issue of accents, Moreno claimed to have played every ethnicity on film, using a universal accent to do so. She also addressed the firing of choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins. Moreno believes that a shift in quality is apparent in the gym dance sequence, which doesn’t quite work for her.
That said, she regaled the audience with fond memories from the audition process and long film production. Moreno’s preparation for her audition made for a harrowing story. Out of practice as a dancer for seven years, she was told she would have to nail her dance audition in order to get the role. After a week of all-day dance lessons, she determined that she would have to learn Anita’s dances beforehand. Her friend, who played Anita in the touring production, taught her two dances and as luck would have it, those were the dances she was taught during the audition. Moreno also told the audience that George Chakiris purchased the Sharks’ iconic leather wristbands from a Manhattan porn shop. When the wristbands appeared during the screening, the audience laughed and cheered.
While it was exciting to see those impressive opening aerial shots of Manhattan and the breakneck dance numbers on a big screen in a movie palace, I was caught off guard by how poorly the movie had aged. Certainly the faux-Puerto Ricans made me wince. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are a snooze as Tony and Maria. They interact with each other like sexless wind-up dolls and their romantic dialogue was often met with laughter from the audience. It’s best to watch the film as a showcase for Rita Moreno’s unparalleled talent. She’s not the best dancer of the bunch, but she sells it as only a born entertainer can. She cuts through the silly lyrics in the popular tune “America” and presents an unusually tough and wise female character for 1960s cinema.
Seeing Moreno in person, a proud octogenarian who takes every opportunity to get out of her chair and demonstrate choreography from the movie, was life affirming. There before me stood a smiling woman who spent the 1950s and 60s maneuvering through an unforgiving white industry and establishing herself as a legend in the process. Ever charming and irreverent, she kicked up her bejeweled heels and delivered zingers like, “My ass was too big for George Chakiris’ shoulder.” What a joy to see her happy, healthy, and still working. It is even more comforting to know she will be entertaining for years to come.
“Sunday Movies at the Palace with Lin-Manuel Miranda” happens every month at the United Palace Theater, located at 4140 Broadway at 175th St. More information at http://www.unitedpalace.org/what-we-do/film/421-introducing-sunday-movies-at-the-palace-with-lin-manuel-miranda.