It took Rita Moreno a year to agree to a documentary about her career. When she finally watched it for the first time, she exclaimed to her daughter: “What a life I’ve had!” The Puerto Rican superstar’s seven decades in show business have earned her Emmys, a Grammy, a Tony and an Oscar-the rare “EGOT” feat, achieved by only 16 artists ever.
Moreno is the only Latina among them, having overcome racism and sexual abuse in Hollywood long before #MeToo, as well as a tumultuous romance with Marlon Brando. Now a happy mother and grandmother, she is the subject of “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” on Netflix, which traces the ups and downs of a life often seen to embody the “American Dream.”
And at 90 she is back on the big screen thanks to “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s remake of the film that won her an Oscar in 1962 — which could now earn her another. Having won best supporting actress all those decades ago as the feisty Anita, Moreno steps into a new role as Valentina, while her former character is played by young Broadway star Ariana DeBose.
“That was very difficult for me,” Moreno told AFP, describing a scene where Valentina rescues Anita from sexual assault. “I’ve gotta tell you it was surreal, very strange. Difficult. Exciting. “My brain was telling me ‘no, no, no, that’s not Anita. You’re Anita!’ I had to tell my brain, ‘No, I’m not Anita any more.'”
‘No role models’
Moreno was born in Puerto Rico in 1931. She emigrated with her mother to New York when she was five, where her dancing opened doors to the entertainment industry. “At the time there were no role models for girls like me,” so she chose Elizabeth Taylor, Moreno recalled.
She made her Broadway debut at 13, and soon after found herself in the movies. On the big screen she received endless “ethnic” roles. Not even her Oscar for “West Side Story,” in which her skin was painted darker, would end the typecasting.
But she continued to expand her career in theater and on television, becoming a role model for today’s Latino stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gloria Estefan and Eva Longoria. They and others speak of Moreno’s inspiring work in the new documentary, which elicits laughter and admiration as well as tears.
“I promised myself that I was going to be as honest as I could be,” said Moreno. Despite decades on the screen, she admitted it was difficult to open up about behind-the-scenes strife in her marriage to US cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who died in 2010.
“It was the first and only time on set that I had to ask them to cut because I was going to cry.” Moreno is more visceral when discussing Brando, with whom she had a passionate eight-year relationship. “Have you ever be so obsessed by somebody that you feel as if you can’t breathe without them? That’s how Marlon felt about himself,” she quips. “He was the daddy I couldn’t please,” adds Moreno.
These days, Moreno lives in California, enjoys cooking and makes a gazpacho “to die for.” But the next few months are unlikely to be quiet, as anticipation mounts that Moreno could be in line for a second Oscar for the new “West Side Story.”
That could potentially pit her against her young co-star DeBose. “Ariana will be nervous that I got nominated, that’s what I think, because she thinks ‘Oh wow, it’s Rita Moreno,” she told AFP, flitting between Spanish and English.
“And I’m thinking ‘no, no, no, you played Anita, not me, and you deserve it.’… She was fabulous, she was divine.” The pair both earned supporting actress nods from the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes, with the Oscars still to come.
“I called Steven Spielberg and said ‘What should I do? Should I show up to these things?'” Moreno recalled, worrying that her presence could make DeBose “nervous.” “He said: ‘Absolutely, you must show up just to show that everybody is friendly with everybody in the cast… you were chosen, you need to be there.'” – AFP