No matter what 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 this 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 16 people to achieve EGOT status for winning Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tony Awards, is coming to Denver next week with a message of resilience. This is a message for women. For Latinos. For anyone, she said, who has been held back by social or personal demons. “It’s for absolutely everyone,” she says.
“People have to accept the fact that they have value. I think we go through life devaluing ourselves, probably because early in life someone put it in our heads that we didn’t have one. But the greatest and most wonderful favor you can do yourself is to find your worth. You have it. You count. …and you can capitalize that.
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 to win an Oscar. And last, until Ariana DeBose won the Oscar this year for playing the same character.
Moreno loved every minute of what she called an amazing story moment. “Your Anita,” DeBose told Moreno, “paved the way for tons of Anitas like me.”
The win made DeBose the first openly queer woman of color to win an Oscar — and the pair the first to win Oscars for playing the same roles in different movies. “I was so moved that Ariana accepted her wonderfully deserved award,” Moreno said. “It felt like we had come full 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 anyone who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, or find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: there is, indeed, a place for us. .
“It just knocked me out,” Moreno said. “He’s a wonderful person. She is magnificent. She dances a storm. I think the world is waiting for her.”
If so, to quote DeBose, it will be thanks to Moreno. But DeBose’s win, she said, doesn’t erase the 60 years between trophies. “I think Hispanics are desperately and deeply underrepresented in Hollywood, especially in movies,” Moreno said, “and that absolutely needs to change.”
Before DeBose, it had been more than 25 years since a Latina American had even been nominated for an Oscar — when Rosie Perez was honored for “Fearless” in 1994. A 2019 study from the University of Southern California revealed that of the top 100 movies from 2007 to 2018, only 3% included Latino leads or co-leads. Latinos got only 4.5% of the speaking roles, and of those, almost 25% of the Latino characters were criminals. For context: Latinos now make up more than 19% of the US population.
“It doesn’t seem like our turn, but it really is,” Moreno said. “It’s time. It’s good over time.
Moreno said Latinos haven’t allied on the issue of representation in Hollywood as effectively as the black community has in recent years, and she has a theory as to why. “What’s different is that black people are considered Americans,” she said. “We tend to think of ourselves as Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Spanish, and I think – unwittingly – we’ve compartmentalized ourselves to the point of not giving each other the support we need and deserve.”
Moreno was born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm in 1931. She immigrated to New York with her seamstress mother when Moreno was 5 years old. After studying dance and acting on Broadway, Moreno was cast like any ethnic minority Hollywood movie studio that needed filling at some point: She played Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and more. Even after her triumph in “West Side Story,” 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” chronicled Moreno’s battles with Hollywood sexism, sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando and her attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar.
How she landed her role in the new “West Side Story” is already legend. As she says: “When Steven Spielberg invited me to be a part of this film, the first thing I said to him – and I did so in the most polite way I could imagine – was “Well, I’m very flattered…but I don’t do cameos. Now, I certainly don’t want to tell you how to make your movie, but don’t you think it might be a little distracting?”
What Moreno didn’t know yet was that screenwriter Tony Kushner, considered by many to be the greatest living American playwright, had written the new role of Doc’s widow in history, and he had written it just for Moreno. When she processed this, she said, “I swear my jaw dropped to my kneecaps. I was just beyond thrilled. I almost peed in my pants.
“I told him I’d be honored to play the part, but I also told him about the need to fix some things in the original film from the Latinos. And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ They practically turned into pretzels just to make sure they got it right this time.
Moreno is coming to Denver to make two appearances tied to Denver Film’s recent Women + Film festival. On May 12, Aisha Ahmad-Post, executive director of the Newman Center at the University of Denver, will lead a conversation and Q&A with the audience at UA. On May 13, Moreno will receive the Barbara Bridges Inspiration Award during a luncheon at the Denver Art Museum. For a woman who has received just about every award, she says, this one will be special.
“It means a lot to me because it’s for inspiration,” she said. “You have to look at my story and say, ‘Wow. They give this award to this little Puerto Rican girl. Because that’s what I see. This award will confirm that I am a good and interesting person, and what can be terrible about that? And I say it: I like to be recognized.
Moreno was unaware that Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine, would be receiving the Women + Film Impact Award at the same luncheon. “I don’t know if I deserved this privilege,” Moreno said, “but I will definitely be proud to be by his side. It’s just amazing.
Moreno knows his message for his Denver attendees — embrace your worth — is easier said than done. But she will tell them to use her story and her struggles for inspiration. And she will tell them the mantra of a resilient woman who is now positively and joyfully charging into her 90s.
“To hell with the shadows, and here comes the light.”
EGOT by Rita Moreno
- Emmy Award: Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a 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 Children’s Recording, “The Electric Company” (1972)
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, “West Side Story” (1962)
- Tony Award: Best Featured Actress in a Play, “The Ritz” (1975)
Click here to see the list of the 16 EGOT winners