I have to admit that I also have a strong fondness for the time Rita Moreno sang “Fever” accompanied on the drums by Animal, which is one of those moments that proved exactly how adult the Muppets have always been. That is a deeply sensual moment. Also, even though it’s scripted, she does have an interesting vocal break at one point that sounds as though she’s distracted and getting pissed off. It’s a delicate level of acting to appear while singing.
Of course, the work she did as Anita in West Side Story was no picnic, either. I was going through images to decide which to use for this piece, and I had to decide what mood of Anita I wanted. Tender? Angry? Playful? Defiant? I could name a dozen or more, and I could find you the screenshot in the movie that shows it. Though it’s hardest, I think, with playful, because you have to get a clear image of her face while she’s dancing.
She says that the reason more Hispanic people don’t win Academy Awards, if you’re curious, is that they don’t play the roles that would get you nominated. Before Anita, she was mostly offered peasant girls, like her performance of Chulita on two episodes of the Guy Williams Zorro in the ’50s. After Anita, she was mostly offered gangsters’ girls and prostitutes, such as her Emmy-winning role of Rita Kapkovic on three episodes of The Rockford Files.
In fact, she is one of a handful of people to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy. The Grammy was for a soundtrack album for The Electric Company, a show that also launched Morgan Freeman. There’s something about public television, particularly for kids, that gears towards multiculturalism and has since Sesame Street. On PBS, Moreno didn’t have to choose between “barefoot roles” and spike heels.
This is a thing I think we forget; Rita Moreno has been standing right there for decades now. She’s perfectly capable of doing any number of roles and has been since Singin’ in the Rain, where she played the minor character of Zelda—who, yes, was a sexpot. What do you do? Rita Moreno has always been a beautiful woman, and anyway at least Zelda wasn’t a barefoot Latin sexpot.
And there’s nothing wrong with being a sexpot, entirely. Anita was perfectly confident in her sexuality. She even implies in “Tonight” that she considers the gang war to be Bernardo’s little game, and then he’s going to come home and into her bed and act like an adult. The difference between Anita and a lot of the other roles Rita Moreno was offered was that there was more to Anita than just the sex. Rita from The Rockford Files, too; Rita is an open and generous woman who is willing to listen to an old lady talk just because she likes listening to the old lady. She’s not ashamed of her sexuality, either, just that it’s all anyone thinks of about her.
So, yes, Rita Moreno had a long career as a sexy woman. But she was a sexy woman who could sing and dance and act, and all three of those are still there. And she educated children on TV, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, either.