[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Michael Schulman (The New Yorker) interviews Rita Moreno.
When Rita Moreno was sixteen, her mother brought her to the Waldorf-Astoria to meet Louis B. Mayer, the all-powerful head of M-G-M. They were told to go to the penthouse, but, she recalls, they didn’t know which elevator button to press. “P.H.,” the concierge advised. Moreno had dressed like her role model, Elizabeth Taylor, with a cinched waist and manicured eyebrows. It worked: Mayer eyed her and exclaimed, “She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!” He signed her to a seven-year contract.
Since then, Moreno has become one of a handful of people with an egot: an Emmy (two, actually), a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. The Academy Award, of course, is for playing the sharp-tongued Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), and her remarkable career stretches from the golden age of movie musicals (“Singin’ in the Rain”) to Norman Lear’s recent reboot of his sitcom “One Day at a Time,” in which she played a bawdy Cuban grandmother. At eighty-nine, Moreno looks and acts half her age, and she’s not slowing down. In December, she appears in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” and this week marks the release of a documentary about her life, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” directed by Mariem Pérez Riera and executive-produced by Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I’d made a big promise to myself that, if I was going to do this, I was going to be as honest as I possibly could be,” Moreno told me recently, of committing her life story to film. That meant revisiting its unhappier aspects. When she got to Hollywood, she was cast as one ethnic stereotype after another—not just spicy Latinas but simple Native American maidens and the Burmese ingénue in “The King and I.” Decades before #MeToo, she was groped and harassed by powerful men and treated as a sex object onscreen. And, during her tumultuous eight-year affair with Marlon Brando, she survived a suicide attempt and a botched abortion. But Moreno has lived long enough to tell the tale her way—and to see Hollywood reckon with its demons. [. . .]
[. . .] And now you have this documentary. What does it feel like to be in your living-legend victory-lap phase?
It doesn’t feel like a victory lap, because that’s not my thing. I don’t want to get even with anybody. I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me in the business, even forgetting being Puerto Rican in this country. But I made up my mind—and only with psychotherapy, which I credit for helping me straighten out my sense of who I really am—that I don’t want to indulge in that kind of “Well, what do you think of me now?” Actually, that felt good!
You left Puerto Rico when you were a small child. Do you remember anything about the journey?
I remember everything. I remember the storm at sea, soon after we left Puerto Rico. Everybody in steerage went upstairs, thinking that we were going to feel better, and in fact it was worse. I remember a very young woman singing to her baby as the ship was rolling. And I remember throwing up a lot.
You’ve described New York City as a reverse Oz, because you came from lush Puerto Rico and suddenly it’s the Depression-era Bronx. What was life like?
It was difficult. The Puerto Rican diaspora had not happened yet, so there were very few Latino kids. When my mother put me into kindergarten, I didn’t know a word of English. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
[. . .] You became an M-G-M contract player when you were extremely young and played a string of stereotypical ethnic roles, which you call the “dusky maidens.” What do you think when you see those movies?
Luckily, I don’t see them. I’m only seeing them now, because of the clips of the documentary. I feel very sad—for me. I didn’t know how to fight back. I was, believe it or not, a rather shy girl, because I had been made to feel that I had no value, that I was just a little “spic,” which was one of the names I got called constantly when I was younger. Thank goodness for psychotherapy. This doctor was wonderful. He actually got me to say that I was a good person and that I had value, and the day he got me to say that, which was eight years into therapy, I burst into tears. He said, “Why are you crying?” And I said, “Because I don’t really believe I have value.”
[. . .] Those “dusky maiden” films seem so archaic now, but you could argue that there’s been only so much progress in terms of Latino representation in Hollywood.
I’m really at a loss to understand why the Hispanic actor is still ignored. We are not represented. And, when we are, we’re gangsters—not all the time, but it’s bad. Where is our “Moonlight”? I feel that we can learn something from the Black community, in terms of how they’ve dealt with their outlier-ness. I’m going to Puerto Rico in about a week to première the documentary. We’re going to see where my family’s house used to be. It’s very important to me that people understand that I am, first and foremost, a Puerto Rican woman, of Puerto Rican birth. [. . .]