The first weekend of the 6th annual Plaza Classic Film Festival has come and gone. So too has the festivals first special guest, Rita Moreno. The last time Moreno visited the city was in 1987 to perform an eleventh hour benefit show to save the historic Plaza Theatre. The theater has now become the primary location for the festival and a performing arts center for the community.
Before Thursday’s screening of West Side Story (1961) Moreno took time to talk to her fans. She began by speaking of her early life, moving from the tropical island of Puerto Rico to the barren wintertime landscape of New York City. Moreno learned quickly that she needed to master the English language to be able to navigate her new surroundings. At a young age Moreno was enrolled in dance classes and studied Spanish flamenco dancing. It was through her dancing she would be discovered and given a contract with MGM. To her, MGM was the studio which housed the biggest stars in Hollywood including her idol, Elizabeth Taylor. Having found it difficult to find a Hispanic role model amongst the Hollywood starlets, Moreno modeled herself after the successful Taylor who was able to have a varied and lengthy career. However, it would Moreno herself who would become a role model for Hispanic women. Her role in West Side Story would earn her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She continues today to be the only Hispanic woman to win this honor. But, before her big win, Moreno worked hard to land the role and was proud of playing a character that was a strong, confident Hispanic woman. However, Moreno would find that playing a character that so closely resembled herself difficult. She spoke of the week spent filming the candy store scene with her character and the Jets. Though it was acting, the scene brought up the bottled up pain and emotion Moreno had felt being the target of prejudice in her own life.
During the rest of her stay Moreno spent time meeting fans and autographing copies of her first book, a memoir of her life and career. She would return to the theater on Saturday to present her handpicked choice for the festival, The Four Seasons (1981). She discussed working with Alan Alda in this his directorial debut. Though the film had wonderful characters and a fantastic cast, Moreno criticized Alda for his handling the female characters and not allowing them to be equal to their husbands. She did praise the film for its portrayal of real characters and its depiction of middle-aged married life, and it continues to be one of her favorites from her filmography. After reflecting on the film, Moreno exited the stage and to the surprise of all there took a seat amongst her fans to enjoy the film which she too has rarely been able to view on the big screen. Yet there was another surprise, before the audience viewed The Four Seasons festival organizers had planned a special showing of another Rita Moreno performance, this time alongside the unique creations of Jim Henson on The Muppet Show.