After Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her work on “West Side Story,” an agent told her she probably shouldn’t hang around the company because she didn’t have what it takes.
âIt was just the most horrible, horrible, horrible thing to do to someone like me,â Moreno says. âI didn’t work because I kept turning down things that were lesser versions of ‘West Side Story’. “
The producers wanted to give him ethnic roles “and it was the most depressing time of my life”.
Fortunately, Moreno hasn’t given up and now, as she approaches 90, she’s one of a handful of performers who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Determined? You bet. In the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go”, she talks about the effort it took to last for decades in a business that hasn’t always been kind.
âI was young enough and inexperienced enough not to understand the implications of playing (stereotypical) roles,â she says. âAt first I accepted them because I thought it was like that, that it was how the world was.
âIt didn’t really start hitting me until several years later, when I suddenly realized that I had to wait a minute. Why do I always have to speak with an accent? Why do I always have to have dark, dark, dark makeup that is not my skin color? Why do I let these people tell me who I am?
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Moreno says she fully accepts the blame for the choices she made. âI didn’t have any mentors, no one to guide me,â she said at a Zoom conference. âI didn’t have anyone saying, ‘Look, honey. This is what is happening to you and this is what you really should start doing. And, in a way, maybe that was a good thing, because if I had suddenly decided to stop and have respect for myself in movies, I wouldn’t have done a movie.
In the years that followed, Moreno saw his career change with roles in “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Four Seasons”. She also found a spot on television, winning awards for “The Electric Company” and “The Rockford Files”. And she became the voice of Hispanic actors when she showed that any role was fair play.
When Norman Lear decided to reboot “One Day at a Time” with a Latin cast, it was natural.
Now, Moreno returns to âWest Side Story,â playing a new role in the reimagined version of Steven Spielberg.
“You are going to have one of the great experiences of all time,” she says of the film. “It was probably one of the most exciting times of my life.”
The film premieres a day before its 90th birthday. And, yes, she does realize that fans want to put her in one of those sacred categories even though she still considers herself an active actress. âI say, ‘Oh my god’ every two minutes,â she said. “The planets are aligned and I don’t know how it happened but I have no complaints.”
When Moreno was new to filmmaking, Gene Kelly fought for her to be in “Singin ‘in the Rain”.
âWhat an enlightened man,â she said. “Otherwise, why would he have offered me the role of Zelda Zanders, a non-Latina, non-ethnic role?” I thought my career was really starting then and it wasn’t like that at all.
If others had followed her example, perhaps she would have had a much less roundabout path.
In the documentary, she shares her struggles. âWe tell women that we are valuable,â says Moreno. “This is something very, very difficult for women to understand because they have been abused for so long – especially women of color and women from other countries.”
To show she was serious, Moreno insisted on the Hispanic portrayal behind the camera. She also promised that she would be as honest and truthful as possible.
âIt was very, very important to me, for my own self-respect,â she says. “I didn’t want it recorded that I lied about something on purpose.”
The “American Masters” presentation of “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” airs October 5 on PBS.