For the second time in Oscars history, the Academy has recognized an actress for playing Anita in “West Side Story.”
Ariana DeBose took home the best supporting actress Oscar for her version of the character — the close confidant of Maria and girlfriend of Bernardo — in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical. It’s the same show-stopping role that won Rita Moreno an Academy Award for best supporting actress 60 years ago in 1962.
On stage, DeBose paid tribute to her “West Side Story” predecessor Moreno — who was in the audience — for breaking ground for Latinos in Hollywood.
“You’re staring at me right now, and I’m so grateful,” DeBose said. “Your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me. I love you so much.”
In another history-making moment, DeBose became the first openly queer woman of color and second Latina to win an acting Oscar. An emotional DeBose took a moment to acknowledge the milestone and what it means for representation on screen.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. Look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color and Latina who found her life and strength in art,” she said to loud cheers and applause from the audience. “That’s what I believe we are here to celebrate. So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, ever, — or you find yourself living in the gray spaces — I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”
In her acceptance speech, DeBose also singled out her character Anita’s standout song, the upbeat musical number “America.” “Now you see why Anita says ‘I want to be in America,'” DeBose said. “Because even in this weary world that we live in, dreams do come true.”
In the press room backstage after the Oscar telecast had ended, DeBose spoke further about what she called “a historical moment” with her win.
“I’m an openly queer woman of color — and not for nothing, that’s freaking awesome, you guys,” she said. She noted that she’s “the second Latina to win an acting award” after Moreno. “And I think that just proves that there’s space for us. It’s a beautiful moment to be seen. And I’m really honored by that.”
DeBose said she hadn’t had a chance to talk with Moreno since her win, but she said they did have “a beautiful moment on the carpet.”
“She just said, ‘Are you ready? You’re in for the ride of your life and I’m rooting for you,'” DeBose said of her conversation with Moreno. “That type of support, it’s everything. Quite frankly, her existence has opened many doors, not just for me, but for many women in this industry, many Latinos. It makes me really happy to be able to stand beside her, because she’s not alone anymore. People don’t talk about that. When you’re the first of something, it’s lonely. I mean, at least that’s what I’ve learned sometimes. So it’s a privilege and it’s an honor to be the person that gets to stand beside her — and guess what, we’re ready and waiting for more folks. Because there’s space. Let’s go.”
DeBose and Moreno are the first women to be honored for playing the same role, but Anita is not the first character have two Academy Awards won for playing it. Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro were awarded Oscars for playing Vito Corleone (in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II,” respectively) and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix triumphed for portraying the Joker (in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” respectively).
Moreno, who became the first Latina to win an Oscar, got to know DeBose while filming “West Side Story.” In addition to serving as an executive producer, Moreno had a small role in Spielberg’s film as a shopkeeper named Valentina. Moreno says she consciously didn’t talk to DeBose about the legacy of playing Anita.
“I knew what a delicate position Ariana was in,” Moreno previously told the New York Times. “I wanted her to be absolutely sure that I didn’t impose anything on her. So as a good hostess, I decided to keep some of those thoughts to myself.” Of DeBose, Moreno added, “She knew the enormity of it.”
As evidenced by her on-screen portrayal, DeBose was more than ready to take on the daunting task of dramatizing an already-beloved character. In his “West Side Story” review, Variety’s film critic Owen Gleiberman called DeBose “a radiant force of nature.”
The newest take on “West Side Story” may not have been as decorated as the 1961 movie — which landed 11 nominations and won 10, including best picture — but Spielberg’s vision was still widely praised. The film received seven nominations at the Oscars, including best picture.
In the category for best supporting actress, DeBose was up against Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”), Judi Dench (“Belfast”), Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”) and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”). Despite the fierce competition, DeBose was the odds-on favorite to win heading into the ceremony. The actress has taken home supporting actress prizes at this year’s BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Prior to her feature film breakthrough in “West Side Story,” DeBose was in the original Broadway productions of “Bring It On,” “Hamilton” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” the latter of which landed her a Tony Award nomination.