I have seen West Side Story on the stage already a few times and yes, there were Anitas who sang better (even though Rita Moreno did not sing ‘A Boy like that’ anyway) and there were Anitas who could dance better; but there was never an Anita who had the same acting talent and energy that Rita Moreno brought to the part. The screen is on fire when Rita Moreno is on the screen and this may easily be the ultimate movie musical performance. Besides dancing up a storm, she runs the whole gamut of emotions, going from happiness to sorrow to anger to hate – and she does all this with magnificent realism while also keeping Anita ‘larger-than-life’ in the universe that West Side Story creates.
Rita Moreno is a supporting actress who both supports and carries the movie. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood may provide the message and the theme of West Side Story and both actors do satisfying work thanks to the simplicity of their characters and the story but West Side Story comes alive thanks to the supporting players. And among them, nobody is such a force as Rita Moreno and she is the reason why West Side Story is the classic that it is today.
‘America’ alone is enough to award Rita Moreno. She has the wonderful talent of not only dancing and singing but actually acting during this number, emphasizing the playfulness and the sexual tension of the scene.
In the bridal shop she shows all the worries Anita has about Tony and Maria with one look and turns her character from a happy party-girl in a great friend and worried woman. Again, she does all this so easily but it’s still obvious at every moment that she is the dominating force in West Side Story.
And later, she shows some of the strongest dramatic acting this category has ever seen when she first has to endure the loss of her love, then is persuaded to help the man who is responsible for it and then is almost raped in Doc’s store. As mentioned before, Anita is a true showcase and it would be very hard for an actress to ruin this part – but to take it as high as Rita Moreno did it is not really easier.