Size matters. Size, though, is about more than body mass.
“I’m big. I’m as big as you get. I may be petite but I’m big.”
That’s Rita Moreno, all 5’2” of her, 70 years into a career that not only isn’t stopping, it seems to be gathering momentum.
* * *
Moreno is one of a handful of performers to have earned the EGOT, the acronym for Emmy®, Grammy®, Oscar® and Tony®, the major awards given for respectively, television, music, film and stage.
She started her collection with a 1961 Oscar for her role in West Side Story. Moreno played Anita, a Puerto Rican native glad to be living in New York City. In her most famous scene, she and her girlfriends sing the praises of “America,” as her boyfriend, Bernardo, and his gang list the New World’s negatives.
“Free to be anything you choose,” Anita sings.
“Free to wait tables and shine shoes,” counter the boys.
“Lots of new housing with more space,” Anita offers.
“Lots of doors slamming in our face,” responds Bernardo.
“Life is all right in America.”
“If you’re all white in America.”
By the time Moreno filmed this scene, she’d experienced both sides of the argument.
* * *
Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno moved with her mother to New York City in 1936. Dancing professionally from age 6, she caught the eye of an MGM talent scout as a 16-year-old. Soon she had a studio contract and a new home in California.
The dream come true was something less than glamorous. The parts she was offered were inevitably “native girl” and “dusky maiden” roles. Off the set there was near constant sexual harassment from studio execs.
Her Oscar did nothing to sway casting directors who continued to offer the same stereotypical roles.
Moreno pivoted to theater and television. She gained new generations of fans as a regular on kids’ show The Electric Company, and lit up Broadway in The Ritz, eventually adding E, G and T to her O.
* * *
One of Moreno’s Emmys was for her appearance on The Rockford Files, the 1970s detective series starring her friend, James Garner. She and Garner shared a commitment to activism; Moreno recalled the two of them at 1963’s March on Washington.
Garner, she remembered was “gulping down Pepto Bismol because he had an ulcer. He was afraid that his career would be over by participating,” she told Variety. “I was afraid too.”
She continues to speak out on women’s issues, racial equality and other causes. She has no qualms about using her celebrity to promote causes she believes in.
“It’s pretty marvelous when someone whose work you respect speaks out,” she told Variety. “I don’t know if it’s going to change anything, but what it does do is reinforce a fight for goodness and justice.”
Moreno’s combination of talent and commitment has earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor to go along with her EGOT.
She joked, “So far, everything but the Pulitzer and the Nobel. But I’m working on it!”
At least we think she was joking.
* * *
For the past few years, Moreno has been a regular on a reboot of the television show One Day at a Time, playing family matriarch Lydia. Lydia is known for dramatic gestures, strong opinions and a commanding – read: loud – voice.
Moreno based Lydia on her own mother. “It’s easy to fall into caricature with her because she’s so big,” Moreno said. “You have to be so careful with a character like that.”
In Moreno’s latest role, she portrays a new character in a familiar setting. Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story will feature Moreno as Valentina, widow of Doc, who owned the candy store where the gangs congregated. That’s also Moreno singing “Somewhere” on the film’s trailer.
Moreno praised Spielberg for avoiding cliches and stereotypes in his version of West Side Story. “He really went to such lengths to make sure he got that right,” she told USA Today.
* * *
West Side Story is scheduled to open Dec. 10. The next day is Rita Moreno’s 90th birthday. Well into what are for most people the retirement years, Moreno is as busy as ever.
“My career began to take off,“ she says in the American Masters episode, “It probably had something to do with my attitude. And my profound happiness at just being me.”
* * *
You can stream the original West Side Story on YouTube, Google Play Movies and Apple TV for $3.99. Her PBS American Masters episode, “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go for It” can be viewed at PBS.org. Catch Moreno in Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Conner on HBO MAX. The rebooted One Day at a Time is available on Netflix and The Rockford Files is available on Peacock for free and Amazon Prime, if you’re a member.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of her phenomenal career. Go to IMDB.com for all of her film and television credits.