Rita Moreno is a badass. She has won an Oscar, two Emmys, a Tony, and a Grammy. She is a Hispanic trailblazer in cinema and is that rare older actress who is still getting work in Hollywood, cast as a major character in Amy Poehler’s upcoming NBC comedy Old Soul.
Moreno, born Rosa Dolores Alvario, moved with her mother Rosa María from Puerto Rico to New York City when she was five. She started taking dance lessons at age 6, and by the time she was sixteen, she was pursuing a Hollywood career. A talent scout introduced her to Louis B. Mayer, a bigshot producer who instantly wanted to sign her.
By this time, her surname was Moreno because her mother remarried, and she chose “Rita” as her stage name after Rita Hayworth. She doesn’t like her early work. “I became the house ethnic. And that meant I had to play anything that was not American. So I became this Gypsy girl, or I was a Polynesian girl, or I was an Egyptian girl.” One would think the “oho, all those ethics are the same” casting practice would have died out long ago, but there are still some fairly recent examples, like The L Word’s casting of actresses of Indian and Iranian heritage as its two Hispanic characters. Rita had a rocky love life also, spending years on-and-off with Marlon Brando who was apparently horrible to her before they split for good. (He tried to win her back after she met the man who would become her husband, but she naturally refused.)
The turning point in Rita’s career came when she played Anita in 1961’s West Side Story and won an Oscar for it. Like many pop culture things, West Side Story is a mix of good and bad—Moreno loved playing Anita, but loathed the brownface used on white actors cast as Hispanic gang members and felt uncomfortable with the non-Hispanic white Natalie Wood being cast as the lead Hispanic character Maria (Also a Hollywood practice that hasn’t died: see Tyrant’s casting of a white actor as its half-Middle Eastern lead.) When West Side Story got award-after-award at the Oscars and the Supporting Actress category she was nominated for was coming up, she thought “My Puerto Rican luck; I’ll be the only one who doesn’t get an award.” But then she won, and in a happy shock, said, “I don’t believe it. Good Lord. I leave you with that” when she accepted it onstage.
Her Oscar win gave her more confidence in herself.“When I got that Oscar, I said to myself: ‘OK … this is it. I’m not going to do those demeaning roles anymore.” Years later, comedienne and actress Liz Torres, who lived in Spanish Harlem when Rita won, would tell her just how much it meant for everyone there to see her win.
Shortly after her Oscar win, Rita met the love of her life, a doctor named Leonard Gordon, who she married in 1965.
After her Oscar win, professionally, her story reminds me of Ellen Degeneres’ coming out, insofar as both women didn’t have new work in entertainment for several years after making decisions that went against the societal grain, but eventually came out of the tunnel and thrived.
Moreno’s post-Oscar ouevre includes: the films The Night the Following Day (1968), Popi (1969), Marlowe (1969), Carnal Knowledge (1971), and The Ritz (1976); the Broadway shows Gantry (1970), The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1971), The Ritz (1975), for which she won a Tony, The Female Odd Couple (1985); the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2006 revival of The Glass Menagerie; her solo autobiographical show Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at the Berkeley Rep in 2011; the TV shows The Electric Company (1971-1977), for which she won a Grammy, the 9 to 5 (1982-1983), Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? (1994-1999), Oz (1997-2003), Cane (2007), and Happily Divorced (2011-2013). Not to mention her appearances on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, The Muppet Show (for which she won an Emmy), The Rockford Files (ditto), Love Boat, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Nanny, George Lopez, and Miami Vice.
Last but not least, this past year, she won the Screen Actors Guild Life Acheivement Award.
Basically, is it any wonder I called this woman a badass?