From Broadway stages to turning her first Oscar nomination into a win, Ariana DeBose has made Oscars history. DeBose won Best Supporting Actress during Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, becoming the first openly queer person to ever win an Oscar in any acting category. She is only the second woman of Latin American heritage to win in the category, following in the footsteps of Rita Moreno, who also won for playing Anita in the original 1961 “West Side Story.” Further marking her milestones, she is also only the eighth Black woman to win in the category. Though she is a newcomer to Hollywood, she came to the Oscars as the frontrunner having already won the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and SAG Awards.
The actress faced stiff competition in the category, beating out Oscar winner Judi Dench for “Belfast,” Kirsten Dunst for “The Power of the Dog,” Jessie Buckley for “The Lost Daughter,” and Aunjanue Ellis for “King Richard.”
Though DeBose is a relatively new name in Hollywood, her immense talent and rise to success is an important reminder that Hollywood loves a Cinderella story. The Broadway baby turned screen star is just the kind of fresh new talent that gets Oscars voters excited. Broadway lovers will recognize her from musicals such as “Hamilton” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” as well as Ryan Murphy’s Netflix adaptation of “The Prom.” She brings a wealth of technical talent to her turn as Anita, with energizing dance moves and a powerful belt, but it’s the fierce well of emotion and humanity DeBose brought to Anita that likely pushed her over the finish line.
In an earlier interview with IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, DeBose acknowledged the changes Tony Kushner made to the script that allowed her to discover new layers to the beloved character.
“He gave this Anita the opportunity to fully own all facets of her emotions,” she said. “We got to see her in even more circumstances. Anita came in and out of that life. The 1961 film didn’t connect certain dots. She was used as an entertainment device. Even though [Rita Moreno’s] portrayal is so deep and grounding in that film, [in this film Anita] has more material, she gets to be seen in a different light. I believe in revivals, in breathing new life into a classic story.”
Like musical theater lovers and cinephiles alike, DeBose recalls the powerful impression Moreno made in the original “West Side Story.”
“I was enamored with the woman in the purple dress,” she said. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized who she was, why she was so important. Rita Moreno was the first Latino to win the Academy Award. I find her to be a beautiful example of expansion. Women like us cannot only be successful but expand our careers.”
In Spielberg’s reimagining, Kushner added intimate domestic scenes between Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Anita. By highlighting the supporting couple’s affectionate and mature relationship, their relationship becomes the anchor around with Tony and Maria’s love shapes itself. It also shows the depths of Anita’s dedication, hard work, and struggle as an immigrant in 1950s New York.
“The circumstances this woman is put in are trying. You are able to show a woman with agency in the context of this time period. Our film takes place in 1957; it’s not a time when women are encouraged to speak our minds. We may have been running a business, but we were not getting the credit for it. Anita was fire, passion, love. You get to watch a woman who owns their body in a positive light. You also watch a woman go through great grief.”
As a longtime musical theater actress, DeBose never lost sight of what makes “West Side Story” tick: The music.
“What makes it so brilliant is the music: the Bernstein score tells the story without having to see anything,” she said. “As a dancer I speak dance better than I speak English. The music tells you what to do. It’s the moment when I’m listening and it’s speaking to me and I allow it to tell me what to do. I am dancing the music, it’s a language I love; it’s so honest. Anita starts there, there’s always a rhythm to her. When she’s still, it’s for a reason. The music tells me what to do. I love Sondheim’s lyrics because they are simple and honest and not showy. I don’t actually have to do a lot. They do the work for you.”