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The Toronto Star

It's Rita, Not Chita, In West Side Story Film

Rita Zekas, Star Gazing

April 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Toronto Star. All rights reserved. 

"Hello, Rita, this is Rita," said Rita Moreno, calling from Los Angeles.

That was the cue for Star Gazing to bring up Chita Rivera, whom we interviewed for Kiss Of The Spider Woman. Afterward, Rivera forwarded a photograph of the two of us together labelled "Chita and Rita."

"How cool to have a three-shot," we suggested, "Rita, Chita and Rita."

"You didn't by any chance write a review of the West Side Story DVD did you?" Moreno asked.

(West Side Story, the Romeo and Juliet street-gang musical classic from 1961, has been repackaged as a two-disc special-edition DVD with a behind-the-scenes doc, storyboards, trailers and a scrapbook-screenplay.)

"Someone from a Toronto paper did and called me Chita Rivera throughout," Moreno explained.

Not guilty.

Chita Rivera originated the role of spitfire Anita on Broadway; Moreno won an Academy Award for portraying Anita on screen.

Moreno and Rivera recently appeared on a fundraiser for colon cancer put on by Katie Couric in New York that featured numbers from West Side Story.

"Robert De Niro and Kevin Kline did 'Officer Krupeke' and Bette Midler, Chita and I did 'America.' At the end of the number, the audience stood up. There was Kelsey Grammar, Kevin Spacey, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon - I'm forgetting half."

During the Academy Awards on March 23, Moreno was part of the Oscar award-winning alumni seated on stage to commemorate the 75th annual ceremony. She confessed that she was as star struck as any groupie.

"It was wonderful backstage in the green room to see the stars in awe of each other," she laughed. "You only know the people you work with. I know Michael Caine and Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep threw her arms around me and said, 'Oh, you're my favourite.' I'd never met her before."

Moreno is a role model for Hispanic actors like Salma Hayek, who was up for best actress for Frida.

African-Americans have had 38 nominations and eight wins in the academy's 74-year history, a veritable tsunami compared with Hispanics, who've garnered 17 nominations and five wins: Moreno, Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) and Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata and Lust For Life).

"Salma came up and said, 'you are my icon.' Because of West Side Story, a lot of people felt, 'if she could do it, I can do it.' Paul Rodriquez, Ben Bratt, Rosie Perez, Jennifer Lopez have all told me that I inspired them."

Moreno, born 71 years ago in Puerto Rico, points out that not all the movie's Sharks and their girls were Hispanic. Some were Jewish or Japanese.

"The reason, I think, is that a lot of Latinos were poor and dance lessons were expensive," she said.

George Chakiris, 68, who won an Oscar for portraying Moreno's love interest Bernardo, was born in Ohio but is still widely assumed to be Puerto Rican. Both he and Moreno wore makeup to make them look darker on screen. Also, their accents in the movie more than bordered on the stereotypical.

That said, Moreno confessed that she still tears up over the film, 40 years after they shot it. "I still cry," she admitted. "And I think I was funny in 'America.' Everybody loves Anita; she is a strong personality."

She has made peace with her voice being dubbed for "A Boy Like That."

"My range couldn't accommodate the song," she explained. "I was a coloratura, now I'm a lyric soprano."

Moreno seems to be doing more acting than singing these days. She plays Sister Marie Reimondo on Oz, co-stars in the John Sayles film Casa De Los Babys and has a recurring role on the Simon Baker series The Guardian.

"Simon is gorgeous," she opined. "I'd throw him on the floor but it would embarrass him."

She should go for it. She could always blame Chita.

Toronto is the only Canadian stop in a 10-city North American West Side Story Sing-A-Long Tour, complete with props like a mirror for "I Feel Pretty." It is staged tonight at 7: 30 p.m. at Royal Cinema, 608 College St.

Home work

There is an open casting call Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. for the film A Home At The End Of The World, shooting in Toronto starring Colin Farrell.

They are looking for a strikingly beautiful 18-year-old girl to play a 15-year- old in 1967 Cleveland, Ohio. The part involves sexual content and some nudity is required.

Applicants should go with photo (not to be returned) to RDC Casting, 1004 Bathurst St. (north of Bloor at Olive St.)

Chitas ever prosper but not in the film version of West Side Story. It's Rita Moreno, centre, as Anita, in the 1961 musical classic. Moreno, right, 42 years later.

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