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Rita Moreno on Spielberg’s West Side Story and Why She Won’t Retire

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For the 2021 Power of Women issue, Variety spoke with several women in the entertainment industry who are using their voices to benefit worthy causes. For more, click here.

Rita Moreno may be turning 90 in December, but the actor dreads the thought of being typecast as a woman over a certain age.

“Why should I have to play a grandmother simply because I’m old? Can I be a lawyer? A scientist? So far, the answer is … not so much,” she says wistfully. “Hollywood suffers in a profound way from ageism.”

Rita Moreno Power of Women Variety

Moreno has made a career — one that spans seven decades of memorable stage and screen roles in “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Electric Company,” “The Ritz” and “One Day at a Time” — out of defying expectations and breaking barriers. In 1961, she became the first, and still only, Hispanic woman to win an acting Academy Award, for her turn as Anita in “West Side Story.” Following her Oscar, Moreno was one of the few to land Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards, a coveted distinction known as an EGOT. And those are just the populist prizes. She’s also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor and a Peabody Award and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “So far, everything but the Pulitzer and the Nobel,” she points out. “But I’m working on it!”

Really?

“I’m kidding, Jesus,” she exclaims to her interviewer. “You do have a sense of humor, don’t you?”

On the phone with Moreno, with her pithy jabs and four-letter expletives flying freely, you’d never know she’s about to be a nonagenarian. “Oh, I have a potty mouth,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not a question of liking to curse,” she clarifies. “It just comes out. I don’t say fuck because it makes me smile. There are plenty of times I say ‘Oh dear,’ but nobody pays attention to that.”

Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York as a child, has been effective at getting people to take notice. She used her platform to advocate on behalf of women and minorities long before it became mainstream for actors to take to social media over hot-button social and political issues. Most memorably, she had a front-row seat to the historic March on Washington, a stone’s throw from Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I remember sitting next to James Garner, a friend of mine, who was gulping down Pepto Bismol because he had an ulcer. He was afraid that his career would be over by participating,” she recalls. “But I was afraid too.”

It didn’t have a negative impact on her work, at least, not one she’s aware of. “If people wanted to criticize us, they didn’t want to reveal themselves,” she says before pausing. “I’m sure if that happened now, you’d hear from a good portion of the United States in a very nasty way.”

Moreno believes people with public platforms have a responsibility to speak up about vital issues: “If they have an opinion, I think it’s important for the rest of America to hear about it,” she says. “It’s pretty marvelous when someone whose work you respect speaks out. I don’t know if it’s going to change anything, but what it does do is reinforce a fight for goodness and justice.”

Today, her philanthropic efforts continue: She’s using her fame as a means to raise awareness of and funds for RotaCare Bay Area and specifically for the Richmond RotaCare Clinic, which provides urgent care for the uninsured. In addition, Moreno’s personal financial commitment has underwritten the cost of care for many.

Moreno spent much of the pandemic hunkered down in Northern California, getting rid of “crap” in her house and selling some of the nicer items to a local consignment shop. “The place I go to sell my very pretty stuff loves me,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of money. I use it to buy more crap.

Being home has its benefits, she says, but Moreno is eager to resume normal life and misses the glitz of awards shows, galas and industry gatherings. She will return to the screen in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which opens in theaters on Dec. 10, the day before her 90th birthday. In the new version, she has a small role and serves as an executive producer.

Because the original film is a classic, Moreno was hesitant about revisiting the ill-fated rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets. But she says Spielberg’s fresh take changed her mind. “The breadth of Steven’s talent is enormous,” she raves.

As an executive producer, Moreno worked with Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the acclaimed writer behind “Angels in America,” to fix any inaccuracies or insensitivities from the 1961 film. Moreno is careful not to give away too many details, though she gushes about the reimagined version of the scene that helped establish her stardom.

“I love the way they did ‘America,’” she says. “It’s completely different from the rooftop ‘America’ that we did, and believe me, that’s a terrific thing. Spielberg and [choreographer] Justin [Peck] decided they weren’t going to compete with something that’s so iconic.”

As for the role that landed her an Oscar, Moreno is still pinching herself. “It’s the last thing I ever expected. That’s not something you say to yourself: ‘Oh, this is going to get me an Oscar.’ At least, I don’t think that way,” she says. “Possibly some actors may, but I certainly never thought in a million years that this little Puerto Rican girl was going to be nominated.”

Though Moreno’s career has endured ups and downs, her passion never wavered. “I love what I do,” she says. “The only way I can retire is if I can’t walk. And even then, there’s always a wheelchair — or roller skates.”


Makeup: Glen Alen; Hair: Anna Maria Orzano