Talk about a great birthday present! The new movie version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, premieres in theaters on Dec. 10. “The next day, I’m going to be 90 years old,” says Rita Moreno, who earned an Oscar for the original 1961 film. “And I am so excited!”
With a career spanning 70-plus years, the self-described “little Puerto Rican girl, whom nobody thought much of,” faced down racism and sexism to become one of just 16 people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.
On Oct. 10, a documentary about her amazing life, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, debuts on PBS. “I think part of the reason I’m still around is that I do everything … concerts, television, lectures, theater,” Rita shares. “I like to think that I can do any damn thing.”
It didn’t seem that way when she first started performing as an immigrant child from Puerto Rico. Extraordinarily talented, she was supporting her family by age 16 and became an MGM contract player, appearing in Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I, among other hits.
Though she praised Gene Kelly — “He never said, ‘Oh, she’s too Latina’” — in other movies, she “was very often treated like a sex object” and faced racism. “I really resented it when they put very dark makeup on me,” she says.
To heal from those wounds, Rita turned to therapy and became an activist, urging her fellow immigrants to “wear your nationality like a flag, be proud of it!”
Now, at 89, she’s still speaking up. “It took years for me to understand that I have worth,” Rita admits. But as a grandmother of two with a long career that shows no signs of slowing down, there’s no question that she does.
Reporting by Susan Hornik