To quote Barack Obama at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, “[Rita Moreno] is still a leading lady of her era, a trailblazer with courage to break through barriers and forge new paths.” That’s not the only political powerhouse to show love to Moreno. Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor one said, “When I was younger, I idolized Rita Moreno. I still do.” When both the President of the United States and one of its Supreme Justices sing your praise, clearly you must be doing something right. For over 70 years Moreno has remained in the limelight, staying relevant in industry that not only tends to reward youth and beauty over talent and tenacity but also has a dark history of gender and racial discrimination. Needless to say, Moreno’s longevity (and praise) didn’t come easy. She not only battled the blatant sexism of Hollywood but also it’s systematic racism that constantly tried to pigeonhole the Puerto Rican actress into the stereotypical of roles of hotheads and sexpots. But despite the myriad of hardships that came her way, both personally and professionally, Moreno never gave up and instead forged her way into the history books.
The absolutely delectable Rita Moreno
Moreno was born in the coastal town Humacao, Puerto Rico. Although both her parent’s had jobs, money was tight and Moreno spent most of her formative years in poverty. By the mid-1930s her parents divorced and her mother, Rosa, whisked 5 year-old Rita out to Puerto Rica and brought her to America with the dream of finding more opportunity and some stability. They settled in New York City, making their new home in the South Bronx. The move was not an easy one for Rita. Like many of her fellow Puerto Rican transplants, Rita didn’t know how to speak English and had some difficultly integrating into her new culture. The earliest memories of her new home were marred by racism. In an interview she did with CBS news Moreno stated:
“I ran into racist stuff quickly,” Moreno said. “Even when I didn’t understand what the word ‘spic’ meant. But I could see the hatred in the face of these young kids, you know, white kids. …And I grew up feeling very, very inferior to just about everybody in the world.”
Luckily Moreno found something that offered her an escape: dancing. Her mother noticed the young tikes penchant for performance and quickly enrolled in lessons. It wasn’t long before the young dancer was wowing audiences with her Camera Miranda Act at weddings and bar mitzvahs. The acting bug came next and by the time she was 11 Moreno was already working on her on films, dubbing Spanish-language versions of American movies. Two years later the young actress would make her Broadway debut as Angelia in the play Skydrift. By the time Moreno was 14 she already know what many people don’t figure out until their late-20s: what she wanted to be when she grew up. In a bold move, the young performer soon dropped out of school to concentrate her time on show business.
Young Rita, preparing for stardom
By this time, Moreno had fashioned herself as “Latin Spitfire,” and was performing in nightclubs throughout New York. Her discovery is right out of the pages of a Hollywood fairy tale. While performing her act in New York, Moreno quickly caught the eye of a MGM talent scout who was impressed by the girl’s fervor. He quickly arranged for the Rita to have audition with none other than the boss himself – Louis B. Mayer himself. Needless to say, he was impressed and Moreno was signed to a seven-year contact on the spot. Unfortunately, the fairy tale pretty much end right there.
While signing to MGM was a huge opportunity for Moreno, it was also harsh learning experience. She was triple threat with ability to sing, dance, and act, but, like most woman of color in the industry, her talents were wasted. MGM simply wasn’t willing or able to utilize their newest acquisition to her fullest potential and often typecast Moreno as the stereotypical Latina sexpot. When she wasn’t playing that stereotype, she was playing some version of “the exotic other”, usually characters with no education, few morals, and heavy accents with origins from nowhere in particular.
Native American, Polynesian, Southeast Asian, Cajun – Moreno played them all and hated every minute of it. She says of time at MGM, “ It was limiting and it was humiliating and it was hurtful.” Of all her films at MGM, only one didn’t cast in as the stereotypical “other,” was Singin’ in the Rain, where she played the race-neutral ingénue Zelda Zanders. Well, if it could only be one film, at least it was one of the best.
Because there were totally Puerto Rican people in 1860s Siam…
When her time at MGM came to an end, Moreno signed on with Twentieth Century Fox. She hoped the change in studios would come with more opportunities to play new, challenging roles rather than stereotypical tripe offered at MGM. Of course, this did not happen and Moreno seemed to be just as confined at Fox as she was at MGM. Her tenure started with the role of sexy Cantina Singer in the western Garden of Evil and continued with the naive Native American, Ula, in Seven Cities of Gold. One film that did manage to utilize the multi-talented actress was the Walter Lang film adaptation of the Broadway musical hit, The King and I. Of course, she was still portraying an exotic other, this time as Tuptim, a slave at the royal place of Siam, but at least the role allowed Moreno to fully utilize her talents as an actor and dancer.
After Fox opted not to renew her contract, Moreno became a free agent. By this time roles were infrequent and she was concentrated mostly to televisions screens. Finally, her luck would change and in 1961 the 26-year-old veteran of the entertainment industry was cast in the role of a lifetime: Anita in West Side Story. Not only did the role challenge her abilities as a actor, singer and dancer, but it also allowed her play something other than an exotic, accented other. To quote Moreno it was, “The first time I had ever played a young Hispanic woman who had a sense of dignity, who had a sense of self-respect.”
As we all know, the film was a massive success. Moreno would eventually go on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This made her the first Hispanic actress to take home an Academy Award and opened the door for hopeful Latinos in the entertainment industry.
I literally can’t handle all the sass in this picture right now.
Now an Academy Award winning actress, Moreno thought winning the prestigious award would open doors to a wider ranger of parts. Sadly, she was mistaken and demeaning roles of barefoot “natives” still came her way. Rather than accept the trite Hollywood had to offer, Moreno said “thanks, but no thanks” and left Hollywood in pursuit of more dignified roles. She found them on the stages of London and New York, where she happily worked for the next decade.
By the 1970s Moreno’s career hit a new stage. Although most actresses find work more difficult to come by as they age, the opposite seemed true for Moreno. Sure, she lost that “sexpot” look that made her so appealing in the 1950s/60s but she aged with an incredible grace while retaining her natural beauty. Add all of this to the Hollywood’s growing progressive nature at the time; Moreno was finally freed of the stereotypes that held her back for so long.
In 1971 Moreno became a cast member on the children’s television series The Electric Company. It often used sketch comedy and reoccurring characters to help further nurture children’s reading and writing skills. The cast won the 1972 Grammy for Best Recording for Children. In 1974 she was cast as Googie Gomez in the Broadway farce The Ritz. The show was extremely successful, playing for over 400 nights. As for Moreno, she would walk away with a Tony Award For Best Featured of Supporting Actress in a Play.
In 1977 Moreno guest starred as vulnerable prostitute, Rita Capkovic, in a three-episode arch on the The Rockford Files. The role won her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstand Guest Actress – Drama Series. With this award, Moreno became only the third person to have the “grand slam” of American show business: The EGOT AKA winning a competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. This is such an incredible accomplishment in the entertainment industry that a whole episode of 30 Rock was dedicated to the concept. I’m not kidding, with only 12 people have ever done it. It’s basically the Nobel prize of the entertainment business…ok that might be a bit of hyperbole but still, you get what I mean. Moreno has one and that is just baller.
Since her EGOT win, Moreno has been working steadily in the entertainment business for the past three and a half decades. All her hard work and struggle throughout her 7-decade career culminated in 2004, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. She has since been presented with the National Medal of Arts form Barack Obama in 2009. Oh, and she Sotomayor are basically besties now. Moreno even did the audio recording of her 2013 memoir My Beloved World. Not bad for a little Hispanic girl from the Bronx.
Don’t be fooled by the crazy amount of success that they got, they still they Rita and Sonia from the block…
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub