Whatever Rita Moreno talks about… she knows what she’s talking about. Sexual abuse. Relentless racism. The subjugation of women and Latinos in Hollywood. The perniciousness of suicide. She knows because she has experienced them all, and more.
“But then, I’m not 90 for nothing,” she said. “I speak from experience.”
Moreno, one of only 16 people ever to have reached EGOT status for winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards, is coming to Denver next week with a message of resilience. It’s a message for women. For Latinos. For anyone, she said, who has been held back by societal or personal demons. “It’s for absolutely everybody,” she said.
“People have to accept the fact that they have value. I think we go through life devaluing ourselves, probably because early in life, somebody drummed it into our heads that we have none. But the biggest, most wonderful favor you can do for yourself is to find your value. You do have it. You matter. … And you can put that in all caps. ”
Moreno returned to the pop-culture spotlight last year when she appeared in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” the classic 1961 musical about the futility of hate that made Moreno the first Latina ever to win an Oscar. And the last, until Ariana DeBose won the Academy Award this year for playing the very same character.
Moreno loved every minute of what she called an astonishing moment in history. “Your Anita,” DeBose said to Moreno, “paved the way for tons of Anitas like me.”
The win made DeBose the first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award – and the first pair to ever win Oscars for playing the same roles in different movies. “I was so moved as Ariana was accepting her wonderfully earned award,” Moreno said. “It was as though we’ve made a complete circle. And it was so moving when she used that line from the song ‘Somewhere’ in her acceptance speech.
What DeBose said was this: “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is, indeed, a place for us.”
“That just knocked me out,” Moreno said. “She’s a wonderful person. She’s gorgeous. She dances up a storm. I think the world is just waiting for her. “
If it is, to quote DeBose, it’ll be thanks to Moreno. But DeBose’s victory, she said, does not erase the 60 years between trophies. “I think Hispanics are desperately and profoundly underrepresented in Hollywood, particularly in films,” Moreno said, “and that absolutely has to change.”
Before DeBose, it had been more than 25 years since an American Latina had even been nominated for an Oscar – when Rosie Perez was honored for “Fearless” in 1994. A 2019 University of Southern California study found that out of the 100 top-grossing films from 2007 through 2018, only 3 percent included Latino leads or co-leads. Latinos got only 4.5 percent of the speaking roles and, of those, nearly 25 percent of the Latino characters were criminals. For context: Latinos now make up more than 19 percent of the US population.
“It doesn’t seem to be our turn, but actually it really is,” Moreno said. “It’s time. It’s way over time. ”
Moreno said Latinos have not coalesced over the issue of representation in Hollywood as effectively as the Black community in recent years, and she has a theory as to why. “What’s different is that Black people are considered American people,” she said. “We tend to consider ourselves Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Spaniards, and I think that – without meaning to – we have siloed ourselves to the point where we are not giving each other the support that we need and have earned.”
Moreno was born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm in 1931. She immigrated to New York City with her seamstress mother when Moreno was 5 years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno was cast as any ethnic minority Hollywood film studios needed filled at any given time: She played Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and more. Even after her “West Side Story” triumph, she said, studios continued to offer her lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities.
Last year, the award-winning documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” chronicled Moreno’s battles with Hollywood sexism, sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando and her attempted suicide one year before she won her Oscar.
How she landed her role in the new “West Side Story” is already the stuff of legend. As she tells it: “When Steven Spielberg invited me to be a part of this film, the first thing I said to him – and I did it in the most polite way I could think of – was, ‘Well, I’m very flattered… but I don’t do cameos. Now, I certainly don’t mean to tell you how to make your film, but don’t you think that might be a little distracting? ”
What Moreno did not know yet was that script writer Tony Kushner, considered by many the greatest living American playwright, had written the new role of Doc’s widow into the story, and he had written it just for Moreno. When she processed that, she said, “I swear my jaw dropped down to my kneecaps. I was just beyond thrilled. I damn near peed my pants.
“I told him I would be honored to play the part, but I also spoke to him about the necessity of correcting certain things from the original movie with respect to Latinos. And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ They practically turned themselves into pretzels just to be sure that they got it right this time. ”
Moreno is coming to Denver to make two appearances related to Denver Film’s recent Women + Film Festival. On May 12, Aisha Ahmad-Post, Executive Director of the University of Denver’s Newman Center, will lead a conversation and audience Q&A at DU. On May 13, Moreno will accept the Barbara Bridges Inspiration Award at a luncheon at the Denver Art Museum. For a woman who has received pretty much all the awards, she said, this one will be special.
“It means a great deal to me because it’s for inspiration,” she said. “You have to look at my history and say, ‘Wow. They are giving this award to this little Puerto Rican girl. ‘ Because that’s what I see. This award is going to confirm that I am a good and interesting person, and what can be terrible about that? And I’ll say it: I love being acknowledged. ”
Moreno was unaware that Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine, will receive the Women + Film Impact Award at the same luncheon. “I do not know that I have earned the privilege,” Moreno said, “but I will certainly be proud to stand side-by-side with her. That is just amazing. ”
Moreno knows that her message for her Denver attendees – embrace your value – is easier said than done. But she will tell them to use her story and struggles for inspiration. And she will tell them the mantra of a resilient woman now charging positively and happily into her 90s.
“Damn the shadows, and here’s to the light.”
Rita Moreno’s EGOT
- Emmy Award: Outstanding performance by a supporting actress in variety or music series, “The Muppet Show” (1977); Outstanding lead actress for a single appearance in a drama or comedy series, “The Rockford Files” (1978)
- Grammy Award: Best recording for children, “The Electric Company” (1972)
- Academy Award: Best actress in a supporting role, “West Side Story” (1962)
- Tony Award: Best featured actress in a play, “The Ritz” (1975)
Click here to see the list of 16 EGOT winners