Monday, 12 October 2015

Rita Moreno: Puerto Rican Superstar

I have to confess that I have had a crush on Rita Moreno ever since I was a lad. I am not absolutely certain where I first saw her, but it may well have been on The Electric Company, an educational children's show on which she was a regular. Of course, it is also possible I may have first seen her in West Side Story (1961), which still aired on prime time network television in the Seventies. Regardless, I remember seeing her throughout the Seventies, not only on The Electric Company and various movies, but also in guest appearances on such shows as Hec Ramsey, The Muppet Show, and The Rockford Files. Even now it is easy for me to understand why I had a crush on Miss Moreno. She is talented, beautiful, and has a great pair of legs. Of course, as a boy I did not quite realise just how singular Rita Moreno is. Even before I was born she was only the second Puerto Rican to ever win an Oscar. By the time I was fifteen she would become the only Hispanic and one of the very few performers to win all four major awards in American entertainment: an Oscar, Grammy, a Tony, and an Emmy. She is also set to receive the Kennedy Centre Honour for her long career in entertainment later this year.

Rita Moreno was born  Rosa Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico on December 11 1931. As a child she was nicknamed "Rosita" (the diminutive of "Rosa"). She spent her early years in Juncos, Puerto Rico.  It was when Rita Moreno was around five years old that her mother left her father and moved to New York City, taking young Rosita and her younger brother Francisco with her. It was not longer after the family moved to New York City that young Rosita began taking dance lessons, training under Paco Cansino, an uncle of Rita Hayworth on her father's side. It was not much later that she began performing at the department store Macy's children's theatre, as well as at such occasions as weddings and bar mitzvahs. She was only eleven years old when she began dubbing American movies into Spanish for distribution in Latin countries. She made her debut on Broadway when she was only thirteen in the play Skydrift, using the stage name  Rosita Cosio.

Rita Moreno made her film debut in 1950 in the film So Young So Bad. She was billed as "Rosita Moreno", having taken the surname of her stepfather. So Young So Bad led to a meeting with none other than Louis B. Mayer himself, who signed her to MGM. It was with her second movie and her first with MGM, The Toast of New Orleans (1950), that she became "Rita Moreno". While Rita Moreno would see her film career blossom, the Fifties were not the best time to be an extremely attractive, Hispanic actress. Often the roles she had to play were outright stereotypes--the hot tempered, sexualised Latin spitfire. She appeared in these sort of roles in such films as The Fabulous Senorita (1952), The Ring (1952), Latin Lovers (1953), and Jivaro (1954). When she was not playing Latin stereotypes, she was often called upon to play various "exotic" roles. She played a Tahitian in Pagan Love Song (1950), an Arab in El Alaméin (1953), and a Native American in The Yellow Tomahawk (1954).

Fortunately, not all of Rita Moreno's roles in films in the Fifties were stereotypes or "exotic" roles. In fact, this is the case with what might be her best known role from the decade. In the classic Singin' in the Rain (1952) Miss Moreno played Zelda Zanders, a thinly veiled parody of Clara Bow (while Clara was the "It Girl", Zelda is the "Zip Girl"). The part was not a particularly big one, but it was pivotal to the film's plot. Quite simply, Zelda was the friend and informant of the movie's antagonist, Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen). In the 1957 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer Rita Moreno played the female lead role of Hetty Hutter. Rita Moreno also played Sandra Roberts in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956).

Rita Moreno's film career in the Sixties would begin on a high note. Indeed, the decade arguably began with what might be her best known film role of all time. She played the role of Anita in the 1961 adaptation of the  Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway Musical West Side Story. The role had been originated by Chita Rivera, and Jerome Robbins wanted her to play Anita in the film as well. Fortunately for Rita Moreno, the studio chose her for the role instead, Miss Moreno already being an established name in movies. As it turned out, she won the  Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in West Side Story. Curiously, even though the film deals with a Puerto Rican gang, Miss Moreno was the only actual Puerto Rican in the cast!

Unfortunately winning an Oscar did not change the fact that the film roles being offered Rita Moreno were mostly stereotypes. She played the sultry actress  Rosa Zacharias  in Summer and Smoke (1961) and Sisa, a member of a band of guerillas fighting the Japanese, in Cry of Battle (1962). Afterwards she would not appear in another film for six years. Tired of being offered hot blooded Latinas and sexpots. she turned her back on Hollywood and concentrated on the stage instead. She did appear occasionally on television during this period.

She returned to movies with The Night of the Following Day in 1968, playing a stewardess who also happens to be an accomplice to a kidnapping. The following year she played the title character's girlfriend Lupe in Popi (1969) and exotic dancer Dolores in Marlowe (1969).

The Seventies would begin with Miss Moreno playing the small role of Louise in the controversial film Carnal Knowlege (1971), but in the Seventies she would ultimately concentrate on television and the stage rather than film. She appeared in Shhh (1975), The Ritz (1976--an adaptation of the Broadway play in which she also appeared), The Boss' Son (1978), and Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980). The Eighties also saw Miss Moreno concentrating primarily on television and the stage.

Beginning with the Nineties Rita Moreno once more began appearing frequently in movies. In the Nineties she appeared in such films as Age Isn't Everything (1991), I Like It Like That (1994), Angus (1995), Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), and Carlo's Wake (1999). In the Naughts and the Teens she appeared in such films as Piñero (2001), Casa de los babys (2003), Play It by Ear (2006), and Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (2014). Her next movie, Remember Me, is set for release next year.

Of course Rita Moreno not only has a film career, but also has an extensive career in television. Unfortunately her early roles on television in the Fifties tended to be much like her film roles in the Fifties--Hispanic stereotypes and "exotic" roles. Indeed, on an episode of  Father Knows Best she even played an exchange student from India! In the Sixties she guest starred on an episode of Burke's Law in which she did not play a stereotype, nor were her roles on television shows in the Seventies stereotypes either.

When it comes to television many people of a certain age may best remember Rita Moreno as part of the ensemble of The Electric Company. Produced by the Children's Television Workshop (the same people who make Sesame Street), Miss Moreno appeared on the show for the entirety of its six year run. The show actually gave her a chance to display her gift for comedy, as well as her range. She played such recurring characters as Millie the Helper (an overly eager trainee in various jobs), Pandora the Little Girl (a rather bratty child), Carmela (her one straight forward character), and even Otto the Director (a very temperamental movie director). During the Seventies she also guest starred on such shows as Hec Ramsey, Medical Centre, Lanigan's Rabbi, and The Rockford Files. Her memorable guest appearance on The Muppet Show won her the Emmy for Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music.

The Eighties saw Rita Moreno play two regular roles on television. In the short lived sitcom based on the movie 9 to 5 she played Violet Newstead (the character played by Lily Tomlin in the film). In the short lived mystery series B. L. Stryker she played Kimberly Baskin. During the decade she also guest starred on The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, and Miami Vice. In the Nineties Rita Moreno was one of the stars of the short-lived sitcom Top of the Heap and she had a recurring role on The Cosby Mysteries. She provided the voice of Carmen Sandiego in the animated cartoon Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? Her highest profile role on television in the decade may have been that of  Sister Pete, the nun and psychologist on HBO's popular series Oz. She also guest starred on such shows as Hearts Afire, The Nanny, Murphy Brown, and Touched by an Angel.

In the 21st Century Rita Moreno has played regular roles on both the short lived drama Cane and the sitcom Happy Divorced. She has guest starred on such shows as American Family, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Jane the Virgin.

Rita Moreno is one of the few performers who not only has had a successful career in film and television, but also on stage. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, she appeared on Broadway before making either her film or television debuts. She made her debut on Broadway in Skydrift in 1945. In the Sixties, at a time much when she was not making movies, she concentrated on her career on Broadway. She appeared in the productions The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Gantry.

She continued her career on Broadway in the Seventies. She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for The Ritz (1975). She also appeared in the play The National Health. In the Eighties she appeared in Wally's Cafe and the female version of The Odd Couple. For her role of eternal slob Olive Madison in The Odd Couple she won the Sarah Siddons Award. In 2011 she began acting in an autobiographical, solo show called Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup.

At age 83 Rita Moreno is still going strong and continues to act. She shows no sign of stopping. What is more, she looks much younger than her actual age.  If Rita Moreno looks eternally youthful, it is probably because she has never stopped working, and she has never stopped working because she is one of the most remarkable actresses of the late 20th Century. At a time when young actresses were expected to be little more than pretty, Rita Moreno not only had the talent to play nearly any role given her, but also the strength and determination to fight playing ethnic stereotypes and sexualised characters. In the Sixties when she continued being offered stereotypical roles in film, she simply turned to television and Broadway. If Rita Moreno remains one of the best known Hispanic actresses of all time, it is perhaps in part because she fought for her right to be treated with dignity and respect.

 Of course, the longevity of Miss Moreno's career has probably been helped by the fact that she is one of those performers called a "triple threat". She can not only act, but she can also sing and dance. In fact, I always thought that she would have made a much better Maria than Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Never mind that Rita Moreno actually is Puerto Rican in descent and drop dead gorgeous, she could also dance and, if the producers had let her, sing as well (as Anita some of her vocals were dubbed by Betty Wand and a few by Marni Nixon). It's little wonder that Rita Moreno excelled on Broadway and on variety and sketch comedy shows like The Muppet Show and The Electric Company, as she could do everything from comic sketches to singing. Indeed, had she been born twenty years earlier I can only believe she would have become a major musical star.

If I still have a crush on Rita Moreno, it's not simply because she is beautiful and has a great pair of legs. It is because she is simply one of the most talented actresses around, and one who is also intelligent, charming, and strong willed enough to fight Hollywood stereotyping. If Hispanic actors and actresses have a wider array of roles available to them now, it is because Rita Moreno and others like her broke down the barriers for them.


FlickChick said...

I love this woman! Not only is she an inspiration as an artist, but she is even more so as a human being. There is nothing she can't do - and look fabulous doing it. Great post!

Hal Horn said...

Great post! Love Ms. Moreno; so beautiful and talented and such a durable performer.

bunnybuntales said...

I'm also a great fan of Rita Moreno. She is very inspiring although. I'm sure she still has great legs too.


What a beautiful tribute! I agree that Rita would have made a terrific Maria, but she has some shining tragic moments as Anita. I açsp remember I saw a bit of The Electric Company with Rita and Morgan Freeman.
And, well, I wish I had her legs! LOL
Thanks for the kind comment!