Rita Moreno on Which 'West Side Story' Scene 'Sealed the Deal' for Ariana DeBose's Oscar Nom (Exclusive)

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Sixty years after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in West Side Story,Rita Moreno is back on the awards season circuit with Steven Spielberg's celebrated new adaptation of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical and ready to cheer on Ariana DeBose, who is poised to make Oscars history once again with a win for the same role.

"I'll tell you what, this is an Oscar part," Moreno told ET's Will Marfuggi at the 74th Directors Guild of America Awards on Saturday night. "And I can tell you the scene that seals it, and it's the scene in the candy store. Because now I can say things like that. I couldn't then, but that's the scene that absolutely sealed the deal."

After playing the boisterous Anita in the 1961 adaptation, Moreno takes on an elder statesman role in the updated version of the film. She plays Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow of drug store owner Doc, who built her life amid the racially charged atmosphere of Manhattan's San Juan Hill and serves as boss and mentor to Tony (Ansel Elgort), teaching him Spanish and giving him hope for his star-crossed romance with Maria (Rachel Zegler).

The scene in question, however, is a heartbreaking confrontation between Anita and Valentina that occurs as the devastating consequences between the film's central couple begin to wreak havoc on their friends and family. Anita shows up to the drug store looking for Tony, who has just killed her fiancé, Bernardo (David Alvarez). She's attacked and assaulted by members of the white Jets gang, and saved by Valentina, though she has no love for the older woman, pushing her away and calling her a "traitor" for providing a safe haven for the "monsters" who attacked her.

"I always felt that was the scene that sealed it for me," Moreno said of the devastating moment. "Here's the weird thing: I was in that scene with her. I was Anita, but I'm not anymore. She's Anita now, and that was really surreal."

Moreno also praised Spielberg's unique takes on some of West Side Story'smost iconic musical numbers, noting playfully that she thought DeBose's updated performance of "America" was "not so shabby."

"It's no longer a rooftop, it's the whole neighborhood. How can you not?" she said of praising DeBose's talents in the epic, colorful number. 

The 90-year-old actress was also delighted to be nominated alongside DeBose at some of this year's major awards shows like the Critics Choice Awards, adding, "Now I know she's going get it, but I'm thrilled and flattered that somebody thought, 'Well, I think Rita Moreno deserves it too.'"

DeBose did end up taking home the Critics Choice Award on Sunday -- further building momentum toward the upcoming Academy Awards -- and made sure to honor Moreno in her acceptance speech.

"To my fellow nominees, you are all so esteemed and glorious and I love you so much! You inspire me, and especially one fellow nominee, the great Rita Moreno," she shared. "Seriously, you made space for me to thrive beside you. I am not in front of you, I am not behind you, I am beside you, and that is the greatest gift you could have ever given me."

The night before, Moreno was on hand at the DGA Awards to honor Spielberg, and told ET she was flattered that the legendary director asked her personally to present him with his award.

"I'm glad we've become very close and I'm just madly in love with this man," she raved. "He's so special. He's so unique. He's so bold. My God, he's bold. Look at the movies."

"This is a man who can go from Indiana Jones, to Munich, to ET, and then a musical, which he's never done in his life," she continued. "And he gets it. He gets it right, because I think it's a spectacular movie."

West Side Story is streaming now on HBO Max. The 2022 Oscars -- hosted by Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes -- air live on Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC. In the meantime, stay tuned to ETonline.com for complete Oscars coverage.

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