Rita Moreno, the first Latin actress to have won an Oscar… and always confined to the same roles

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Rita Moreno attends the premiere of the film West Side Story at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles, California, U.S. December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Rita Moreno, the first Latin actress to have won an Oscar… and is still confined to the same roles REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

She is 90 years old and is back in the movie that brought her to the front of the stage, “West Side Story,” this time by Steven Spielberg. Rita Moreno is a pioneer. In 1962, she became the first Latina actress to win an Oscar, followed by Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards. However, her path was plagued with obstacles.

In 1962, 31-year-old Rita Moreno took the stage shaking at the 34th Academy Awards to receive her award for Best Supporting Actress. This is how her consecration is: her interpretation of the character of Anita in “Westside Story”Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s musical drama with natalie wood, earns him honors. This is the first time that a Latin actress wins an Oscar. And yet, on stage, Rita Moreno signs one of the shortest speeches in history. “I can’t believe it! My God! I’ll leave you with this,” she snapped. Seven small seconds in everything that the now 90-year-old actress explained to the New York Times: “I remember thinking very clearly: ‘Don’t thank anyone. They didn’t give you the role as a favor. They had to give it to you because you had the best audition.’ I had nothing more to say once I decided I wasn’t going to say thank you.” This fiery temperament, Rita Moreno understood very quickly that she would never have to let him go.

Video. Rita Moreno wanted to die for the abuse of Marlon Brando

The beginnings of a star

Born in Puerto Rico in 1931, Rosa Dolores Alverío, her real name, grew up on a farm on the Caribbean island. When she was 5 years old, she flew with her mother to New York, where she promptly began taking dance classes. Her origins allow her to enter the world of cinema at just 11 years old. During this period, she lends her voice to Spanish versions of American films. Two years later, she made her Broadway debut and played the character of Angelina in the show “Skydrift”. Hollywood agents are gradually becoming interested in this bubbly and incredibly gifted girl for dance and theater. The doors of the cinema then open to Rosa, who becomes Rita Moreno. After a first role in the movie “So Young, So Bad”, she signed a 7-year contract with the famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Papers follow each other at lightning speed. Problem: They all look the same.

“They only saw me a certain way, and I always had to speak with an accent,” the actress confided in 2017 to The Times. I couldn’t even audition for anything other than ‘a native girl’. Studios are gradually locking Rita Moreno into “ethnic” and/or hypersexualized roles. She in turn, she plays a Hawaiian, Native American, Egyptian, Filipino or even Burmese. “I felt really helpless. I was reading a script, thinking I could play this role. And my agent said, ‘They don’t want you.’ It was heartbreaking.” In 1961, she was offered to play Anita in the film adaptation of the musical “West Side Story“This role is going to be decisive.

“The important thing about Anita for me, and it still is, was that it was the only time I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way,” he recalls today. However, Rita Moreno almost turned down this career-changing offer for her. The reason ? A verse from the song “America” ​​in which she was going to sing: “Puerto Rico. Ugly island, island of tropical diseases.” To understand: “Puerto Rico. Ugly island, island of tropical diseases.” The last straw for this Puerto Rican by birth: “Suddenly it came to my mind: ‘Oh, my God, I can’t sing that, I can’t do that to my people.'” Fortunately, the lyrics were changed and Rita Moreno’s performance earned her an Oscar.

stereotyped roles

After becoming the first Latina actress to win an Oscar, nothing has really changed for Rita Moreno. Her agents continued to offer her, relentlessly, the same stereotypical roles of “exotic and Latin” women, gang members or housewives. For seven years, she left the Hollywood studios to perform on stage. “The Oscar? She didn’t make me a good person. She just made me a lucky person that time,” she told Time. It was in the 70’s that Rita Moreno finally finds her way to Hollywood. Over the years, her appearances in popular movies and television series have earned her new accolades. So much so that she becomes the first Latin actress to win all four of the show’s main awards on the other side of the Atlantic: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. Boat.

However, 60 years after Rita Moreno’s coronation at the Oscars, the latin actresses they continue to be underrepresented or even invisible in American cinema. “We are not represented as much as we should (…) I think we have to do better than we have done. The black community has done fabulously well and maybe we can learn some lessons from that,” Rita Moreno estimated in 2021 in a interview with the YouTube channel Backstage OL. For this 2022 Oscar ceremony, only two Latin actresses are nominated: Penelope Cruz for her role in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”, and Ariana Debose for her role in the adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”, in which we can also find Rita Moreno. One more problem in the functioning of American cinema, still considered too little inclusive. the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite it also floods Twitter every year.

Video. Rachel Zegler was invited to the Oscars… as a presenter!

A gross underrepresentation

Before talking about ceremonies and awards, we must take into account the difficulties that racialized actors and actresses find to get a role that, 1. does not fall into obsolete clichés, 2. has no connection with their ethnic origins. If she had the chance to find success with “West Side Story,” Rita Moreno also suffered criticism for her role in the film, which portrays members of the Hispanic community as mobsters. In 1961, the cast of “West Side Story” was also largely non-Latino. Some actors even wore “dark” makeup and adopted an accent to “appear more Hispanic.” Rita Moreno received the same treatment… despite being from Puerto Rico.

“I remember once saying to my makeup artist, ‘Why do I have to wear such dark makeup? I’m not that color,’ and he literally said, ‘What, are you racist?’ He really said that and I was so surprised that I kept silent, because I didn’t know what to answer to that. It was shocking, “he said in the columns of the Chicago Sun Times. 60 years later, in the 2022 version of “West Side Story”, Steven Spielberg assured that “every Hispanic character is Hispanic”. Logical, you would say. Not for everyone apparently.

In 2019, a study by the University of Southern California think tank thoroughly investigated top 100 grossing american movies, between 2007 and 2018. And the finding is clear: only 3% of these films had an actor of Latin American origin. Among the women, three actresses shared almost all of these roles: Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Alba. “I think Hollywood has changed. I think there are still things to resolve. The representation that Hispanics have is almost nil. There are so many talented people among Hispanics. Jennifer López cannot be the only one”, declared Rita Moreno in 2021. In addition, 47% of the cases studied did not include any Latin American character, when 24% of the cases did so with many stereotypes, presenting them mainly as drug traffickers, members of gangs or unskilled jobs…

Also read:

>> A year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Hollywood returns to color

>> The Oscars 2020 involved in the controversy “Oscars So White” for the photo of the nominees

>> Oscars 2022: where to watch the ceremony, nominations, absentees… Everything you need to know!

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