Why Ariana DeBose's Oscar Nod To Rita Moreno Was So Significant

Ariana DeBose took home the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance as Anita in Stephen Spielberg's adaptation of "West Side Story." What made the win particularly notable is that it was the second time an actress took home the best supporting actress Oscar for playing that role (via NPR).

Actress Rita Moreno appeared in the 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical. She too played the role of Anita, and her performance also earned her an Oscar at the 1962 Academy Awards — over a span of 60 years, there was a special moment shared by two incredible actresses. Moreno's victory also made her the first Latina to win an Academy Award.

According to Good Morning America, two actors or actresses earning Oscars for the same role is rare. It has only happened three times, with Moreno and DeBose comprising the first pair of actresses to accomplish the feat.

"You're staring at me right now and I'm so grateful," DeBose said to Moreno who was in the audience during her acceptance speech. "Your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me and I love you so much."

The original Broadway version of 'West Side Story'

The original Broadway version of "West Side Story" was conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music and lyrics by Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondheim respectively, and was inspired by a book by Arthur Laurents. Going further back, the story was originally based on William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

"This show [West Side Story] is my baby ... If it goes as well in New York as it has on the road we will have proved something very big indeed and maybe changed the face of American Musical Theater," Sondheim wrote in a 1957 letter to composer David Diamond.

The show was popular and even earned a pair of Tony Awards for best choreography and best scene design, in addition to a slew of other nominations. According to History, the show's original Broadway run included 732 shows, and its immense popularity led to a 1961 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and, of course, Rita Moreno.

Rita Moreno as Anita

In the 1961 adaptation of "West Side Story" — directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise — Moreno's Anita "stands out for her assertiveness and captivating dance skills," according to NBC News.

In a joint interview alongside DeBose with The New York Times, Moreno said that her experience in the iconic role left a big impact on her. "For me, it was a revelation because I realized midway through the [first] film, that I actually found my role model at the age of something like 28, and it was Anita. I had never played a Hispanic woman who had that kind of dignity and the sense of self-respect, and fearless in terms of expressing what she needed to express," the nonagenarian actress said.

At the 34th Annual Academy Awards in 1962, Moreno won the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role, besting Fay Bainter, Lotte Lenya, Una Merkel, and Holywood legend Judy Garland, who was nominated for her role in the film "Judgment at Nuremberg."

Ariana DeBose as Anita

While "West Side Story" was seen by many to be an untouchable classic, director Stephen Spielberg unveiled his adaptation in late 2021, and like its 1961 predecessor, it was met with critical acclaim. One of the aspects of the film that received a great deal of praise was DeBose's interpretation of the role of Anita.

"Anita is inherently a woman who knows her own mind. She's a woman ahead of her time. She has agency, and she does speak up," DeBose told NBC News. "In 1957 or 1961, that is an anomaly."

DeBose said she wanted to deliver a performance as Anita that was different from any that had come before it. "I was very adamant that whatever interpretation I delivered for this performance was going to be massively different," DeBose said. "By virtue of being a Black woman, that makes it a different portrayal, because my physical manifestation has to inform this particular version."

Moreno was in attendance to see DeBose accept her award at the 94th Academy Awards — and to see Anita join Don Vito Corleone and the Joker as the only characters of whom multiple interpretations by different performers have earned Oscars (via Good Morning America).