11 december, 1931
American actress Rita Moreno has managed to have a thriving career for the better part of six decades despite the institutional racism that has plagued the entertainment industry, particularly the anti-Hispanic bias that stereotyped Hispanic women as "spitfires" and sexpots. Moreno, one of the very few (and very first) performers to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy, was born Rosita Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico on December 11, 1931. She moved to New York City in 1937 along with her mother, where she began a professional career before she was a teenager. The 11-year-old Rosita got her first movie experience dubbing Spanish-language versions of American films. Less than a month before her 14th birthday on November 11, 1945, she made her Broadway debut in the play "Skydrift" at the Belasco Theatre, co-starring with Arthur Keegan and the young Eli Wallach. Although she would not appear again on Broadway for almost 20 years, Rita Moreno, as she was billed in the play, had arrived professionally. It would take her nearly as long to break through the forces of institutional racism and become the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award.
The cover of the March 1, 1954 edition of "Life Magazine" featured a three-quarters, over-the-left shoulder profile of the young Puerto Rican actress/entertainer with the provocative title "Rita Moreno: An Actresses' Catalog of Sex and Innocence." It was sexpot time, a stereotype that would plague her throughout the decade. If not cast as a Hispanic pepper pot, she could rely on being cast as another "exotic", such as her appearance on "Father Knows Best" (1954) as an exchange student from India. Because of a dearth of decent material, Moreno as an actress had to play roles in movies that she considered degrading. Among the better pictures she appeared in were the classic Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The King and I (1956).
Filmmaker Robert Wise, who was chosen to co-direct the movie version of the smash hit Broadway musical West Side Story (1961) (a retelling of Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" with the warring Venetian clans the Montagues and Capulets re-envisioned as Irish/Polish-American and Puerto Rican teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks), cast Moreno as "Anita", the Puerto Rican girlfriend of Sharks' leader Bernardo, whose sister Maria is the piece's Juliet. A seasoned singer and dancer, Moreno delivered a superb performance that completely overshadowed the Maria of the movie, the non-singer (and non-Hispanic) Natalie Wood, the only movie star in the ensemble cast.
Moreno was unforgettable in a harrowing scene where she had to deliver a message from Maria to the Romeo of the piece, the Jets' member Tony, and is assaulted by his fellow gang-members. This is the real climax of the film, as the degradation of Anita proves that the machinations of fate are in full gear, and that the players will not be able to escape their destinies whatever their intentions. For her performance, Rita Moreno won a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. Her performance was an integral component of one of the most successful film musicals in history, and a movie that has transcended the class "classic" to become legendary, a film (like Moreno's favorite, Citizen Kane (1941)) that can never be remade.
However, despite her proven talent, roles commensurate with that talent were not forthcoming in the 1960s. The following decade would prove kinder, possibly as the beautiful Moreno had aged and could now be seen by filmmakers, TV producers and casting directors as something other than the stereotypical spitfire/sexpot that Hispanic women were supposed to conform to. Ironically, it was in two vastly diverging roles -- that of a $100 hooker in director Mike Nichols brilliant realization of Jules Feiffer's acerbic look at male sexuality, Carnal Knowledge (1971) (1971) and that of Milly the Helper in the children's TV show "The Electric Company" (1971) (1971) -- that signaled a career renaissance.
During the seventies, Moreno won a 1972 Grammy Award for her contribution to "The Electric Company" soundtrack album, following it up three years later with a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for The Ritz (1976), a role she would reproduce on the Big Screen. She then won Emmy Awards for "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files".
Thereafter, she has continued to work steadily on screen (both large and small) and on-stage, solidifying her reputation as a national treasure, a status that was officially ratified with the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in June 2004.