Moreno, Rita: 1931—: Actress, Singer, Dancer
Rita Moreno: 1931—: Actress, singer, dancer
Rita Moreno's versatility as a performer has led to decades of success on stage, screen, and television. She is the only female entertainer to have won all four of the most prestigious show business awards: the Oscar for the role of Anita in the 1962 film West Side Story, the Tony for the role of Googie Gomez in the 1975 production of The Ritz, Emmy awards in 1977 and 1978 for appearances on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files, and a Grammy for her 1972 performance on The Electric Company Album. She has also received dozens of other show business awards, most notably, The Golden Globe Award and the Joseph Jefferson Award as best actress in Chicago's theatrical season in 1968 for her performance as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995.
Along the way Puerto Rican-born Moreno has become a trailblazer and inspiration for aspiring Latino actors. Until she achieved acclaim for her performance in West Side Story, Moreno was plagued with roles that propagated ethnic stereotypes, including "Latin Spit-fire" roles in such forgettable films as Jivaro, (1954) and Seven Cities of Gold (1955). After winning the Oscar she became one of a few Latinos to achieve international acclaim. That has changed with the success of performers such as Rosie Perez, Sonia Braga, and Elizabeth Pena. "The first time I met Rosie Perez, she started to cry," Moreno told the Times Union Albany. "I can't tell you how surprising and moving it is, and how astonished I am that I meant that much to my colleagues of Hispanic descent."
Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio on December 11, 1932, in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Her mother, Rosa Maria Mercano, married Paco Alverio, a small independent farmer, when she was just a teenager, but the marriage ended in divorce. In the 1930s the pressures of the Depression and the side effects of the island's rapid industrialization forced Rosa to look toward the United States for sustenance. She left home to work as a seamstress in New York City, leaving young Moreno in the care of relatives. A year later, five-year-old Moreno joined her mother.
The following year she began taking dance lessons, and it wasn't long before she was performing in the children's theater at Macy's Department Store and at weddings and bar mitzvahs. At age 13, she had her Broadway debut in the role of Angelina in Harry Kleiner's Skydrift and dropped out of school a year later to concentrate on her show business career. Then, in the true Hollywood tradition, a talent scout arranged a meeting for Moreno with Louis B. Mayer and she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 at the age of seventeen. Moreno, now using the surname of her stepfather Edward Moreno, shortened her nickname Rosita to "Rita" at the request of MGM.
At a Glance . . .
Born Rosa Dolores Alverio on December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico; married Leonard Gordon; children: Fernanda Luisa.
Career: First appeared on Broadway at the age of thirteen, in Skydrift ; appeared in numerous films; numerous television guest appearances, sitcoms, and drama series, including Showtime's Resurrection Blvd and HBO's Oz.
Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1962; Best Supporting Actress, Golden Globe Awards, 1962; Best Recording for Children, Grammy Award, 1972; Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music, Emmy Award, 1977; Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series, Emmy Award, 1978; Best Supporting Actress, Antoinette Perry Award (Tony), 1975; Best Actress, Joseph Jefferson Award, 1985; Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1995; Lifetime Achievement Award, Nosostros Golden Eagle Award, 1997; Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, American Latin Media Arts Award (ALMA), 1999.
Addresses: Agent— William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino, Beverly Hills, CA, 90212.
Career Hindered by Stereotypes
After joining MGM Moreno's career advanced steadily. In little more than ten years she had reinvented herself into a Hollywood starlet. However, the range of her talents were ignored and she found herself incessantly cast as a fiery Latin sex kitten or an Indian maiden in a succession of stereotypical, ethnic roles in such films as The Fabulous Senorita (1952), Latin Lovers (1953), and The Yellow Tomahawk (1954). "There was no such animal as a Spanish-American actress. Lupi Valez and Dolores Del Rio, that was it," Moreno told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "What happened was, in those days they did a lot of westerns and there was always a part for a senorita, singing and dancing my little bum off and, tock-eeng lahk deez. When that period was over, there was nothing left but gang movies." Still, when her contract with MGM was canceled early, Moreno was devastated.
After MGM she signed on with Twentieth Century-Fox. The roles she played were no different—she was typecast as the dumb, sexy characters moviemakers thought she was suited for, including a poor, barefooted Native American in Seven Cities of Gold (1955) and Tuptim, a slave girl, in the classic The King and I (1956). In 1957 she made The Deerslayer and then, without reason, Fox let her contract lapse. It would be three years before she would make another movie.
Recognized as a Major Talent
Moreno spent the next few years working in stage productions, including Arthur Miller's AViewfromthe Bridge. In April of 1961, when a nearly decade-long affair with Marlon Brando ended, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. The suicide attempt was a turning point in her life, reminding her that "life is really very precious." Later that year she appeared in the movie version of West Side Story (1961). It was only after she won an Academy Award—the first for a Hispanic actress—for her outstanding performance as strong-willed and independent Anita that she was finally recognized as a major talent.
Although the role of Anita showcased Moreno's talent for all the world to see, it continued to reinforce the Latino stereotypes. The Academy Award, however, gave her some leverage in the moviemaking industry. "I decided once I won the Oscar that I was not going to do those kinds of movies again. I'm not speaking of West Side Story, obviously … I didn't do a movie for seven years," Moreno stated in an interview with National Public Radio.
In 1962 she moved to London where she played Ilona Ritter in Hal Prince's production of She Loves Me. She then returned to New York to star in Lorraine Hans-bury's, The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window, playing the role of Iris Parodus Brustein. Moreno returned to film in 1967, portraying a drug-addict in The Night of the Following Day (1968), opposite Marlon Brando. This led to roles in films such as Marlowe (1969), opposite James Garner; Popi (1969), as Alan Arkin's girlfriend; and Mike Nichol's production of Carnal Knowledge (1971), in which she played a prostitute visited by Jack Nicholson. In 1970 she returned to theater as the female lead with Robert Shaw in Gantry on Broadway, and was cast opposite Jimmy Coco in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
It was during this prolific period in Moreno's career that she met Dr. Lenoard Gordon, a cardiologist and internist and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. They married in June of 1965. Moreno attributed the success of her marriage to Gordon, who is Jewish, as an example of personal enrichment to exposure to differences, according to an interview with National Public Radio. In 1967 she gave birth to their only child, Fernanda Luisa. Lenny continued his medical practice until he was forced to retire due to congenital heart disease. This gave him the opportunity to devote himself to his daughter and Moreno's career. He would eventually became her manager.
Awarded Top Prizes
In 1971 Moreno took a hiatus from film and theater to work in television. She had captured the attention of producers of such shows as The Electric Company, of which she became part of the cast for six seasons, and Sesame Street, both highly regarded educational programs. In 1972 she won a Grammy, along with the rest of the cast, for the soundtrack recording of The Electric Company.
In 1975 Moreno received a best supporting actress Tony Award for her portrayal of Googie Gomez in The Ritz. Playwright Terrence McNally based the character on Moreno's own comic portrayal of the stereotypical roles she had always been cast to play. "Googie Gomez was the ultimate send-up," she told National Public Radio. "I was thumbing my nose at all the people who wrote those kind of roles seriously. And I think that everybody understood that on the whole." She would go on to receive Emmy awards for a guest appearance on The Muppet Show in 1977 and the portrayal of a vulnerable prostitute on The Rockford Files in 1978. In 1979 she was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the only performer to win all four top entertainment awards.
Demonstrated Versatile Talents
Finally breaking the mold, Moreno went on to portray a Jewish mother in The Boss's Son (1979) and to develop a nightclub act as "insurance." "It simply means that when there's no TV around to speak of, or film, it's a wonderful way to earn a living," she told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "That's the good thing about being a performer who does many different things, which you don't find many of anymore. People specialize, like in medicine and law, so much that they box themselves into corners. But I always have a venue. Always." Her next film role did not come until 1980, when she played an Italian American mistress in Happy Birthday, Gemini.
In 1982 Moreno returned to television in the sitcom version of the hit film 9to5. While it did relatively well from 1982 to 1983, the time-slot was changed and its rating fell. Despite the demise of the series, Moreno was nominated for an Emmy. She went on to do Alan Alda's The Four Seasons, with Carol Burnett in 1993, and then in 1994, the highly acclaimed Columbia Pictures release Like It Like That. In 1995 Moreno was featured in Showtime's, Wharf Rat, opposite Lou Diamond Phillips and Judge Reinhold and in the feature film Angus with George C. Scott. Then she found herself on Broadway again in the short-lived gender-switched version of The Odd Couple, co-starring with Sally Struthers. In another return to television, she played opposite Burt Reynolds in B.L Stryker from 1989 to 1990, and in the 1991-1992 Fox Network series, The Top of the Heap. In 1994 Moreno returned to New York to appear as a series regular with Bill Cosby on the Cosby Mystery Series on NBC.
But Moreno's greatest love is the theater. In 1995 she returned to the New York stage in Anne Meara's After Play and in Circle Repertory's production of Size Of the World. In the fall of 1997 Moreno again won the acclaim of the London audiences when she returned to the London stage in the starring role of doomed screen goddess Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webbers' Sunset Blvd. Moreno performed in The Vagina Monologues early in 2001 in New York and San Francisco. Moreno has appeared in many regional theaters, often with her daughter Fernanda, also an actress. They have appeared together as mother and daughter in The Glass Menagerie, Steel Magnolias, and Gypsy, and as sisters in The Taming of the Shrew.
Moreno's work on the acclaimed HBO prison series Oz, in which she bucked the stereotype once again as the tough-talking nun and counselor, Sister Peter Marie, has won her accolades. She also guest starred on the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd and appeared in Piñero (2001) as the mother of Puerto Rican poet and playwright Manual Piñero, played by Benjamin Bratt.
In addition to her film, stage, television, and concert careers, Moreno filled her spare time by lecturing to various organizations as well as to university audiences. She has spoken on the history of film, television and theater and the importance of self-esteem and education. She is also involved with a number of civic and charitable organizations and events. She has served on the National Foundation for the Arts, as a commissioner on the Presidents White House Fellowships, and as a member of the Presidents Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
It may be said that Rita Moreno, who has portrayed Shakespearean characters, an Irish teacher, and Italian widow, a reformed prostitute, a lady evangelist, an English lady, and a southern belle, has broken the rigid role of Latino stereotyping. Still, Moreno feels that Hollywood has a long way to go in its portrayal of Hispanics. "The door for Latinos has opened just a crack, [but] you still have to push," she told Hispanic Magazine. "I'm still fighting the battle. Being a woman, and being Latino, and then, horror of horrors, a mature Latino woman, is very difficult."
A View From the Bridge. The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window.
The Rose Tattoo.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
The Odd Couple.
Size of the World.
The Vagina Monolgues.
The Glass Menagerie.
The Fabulous Senorita, 1952.
Latin Lovers, 1953.
The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954.
Seven Cities of Gold, 1955.
The King and I, 1956.
The Deerslayer, 1957.
West Side Story, 1961.
She Loves Me, 1964.
The Night of the Following Day, 1969.
Carnal Knowledge, 1971.
The Boss' Son, 1979.
Happy Birthday, Gemini, 1980.
The Four Seasons, 1981.
I Like It Like That, 1994.
The Wharf Rat, Showtime, 1995.
The Electric Company. Sesame Street. 9 to 5. B.L. Stryker. The Top of the Heap. Cosby Mystery Series. Oz, HBO.
The Muppet Show.
The Rockford Files.
Resurrection Blvd., Showtime.
Times Union (Albany), October 5, 2000. P. 22.
Baltimore Sun, September 9, 1993. 1F.
Contra Costa Times, August 18, 2001. C03.
Hispanic Magazine, December 2001.
People Magazine, September 28, 1998. P. 167.
South Bend Tribune, October 9, 2001.
Telegram & Gazette (Worcester), September 18, 1992. C1.
National Public Radio, Weekend Edition, November 7, 1999
—Kelly M. Cross
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