Hispanic Heritage Month 2014: Rita Moreno's Groundbreaking Life in the Spotlight Continues to Inspire Latino Actors
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Latin Post is exploring the life and legacy of Rita Moreno.
Many people use the word "icon" loosely when singing a star's praises, though it's rarely truly justified. But sometimes the word and the subject are interchangeable, especially if it's a Latina trailblazer at the culmination of Hispanic Heritage Month.
The legendary and vivacious Puerto-Rican born, Bronx-raised, actress, singer and dancer-turned author Rita Moreno, now 82 years old, has paved the way for fellow Latinos and continues to set an example in the entertainment industry.
She's one of an impressive and elite group of ten EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award) winners. In 1961, Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in "West Side Story," a Tony as Googie Gomez in "The Ritz," a Grammy for "The Electric Company" album, and two Emmys for appearances on "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files."
A show-biz veteran and a Screen Actors Guild member for more than 60 years, Moreno is one of the classic Hollywood actresses of our time. Dubbed a Latina Elizabeth Taylor, Moreno is a triple threat who can act, dance and sing -- attributes that don't come by very often these days in Hollywood.
Born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, Moreno started out performing in nightclubs and made her Broadway debut at age 13 in "Skydrift." In 1950, she used her stepfather's surname when she first appeared on the big screen in "So Young, So Bad." She then landed a contract at MGM, where a casting director changed her first name to Rita, inspired by the iconic Rita Hayworth.
Moreno's first film for MGM was the Mario Lanza musical "The Toast of New Orleans," and two years later, she had a small role as the flapper actress Zelda Zanders in "Singin' in the Rain." From there, she would go on to star in such films as "The King and I," "West Side Story" and "Carnal Knowledge."
Besides the impressive accolades and recognition, Moreno's legacy is also celebrated by many notable and award-winning Latino actors who are deeply rooted in theater-training and genuinely look up to Moreno for her stellar accomplishments.
Judging by the response that I recently received from Emmy and ALMA Award-winning actor Hector Elizondo, whose face lit up at the mention of Moreno's name during a recent interview with Latin Post for "The Book of Life," it's evident that she's made a profound impact.
For over 45 years, Elizondo has enjoyed a successful and prolific career in film, television, theatre, and radio. He, too, never forgets his Latin roots or his fellow Latinos. He also started his career as one of the few Latinos in the industry, and Elizondo also has New York and Puerto Rican roots like Moreno (she's from the Bronx and he's from Harlem).
Elizondo is most known for his roles in "Pretty Woman," for which he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an American Comedy Award for his iconic depiction of the hotel manager, as well as the sinister hijacker in the original "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," but he got his start as a theater-trained actor. He says that while there are "certainly" more Latino actors out there today, he remembered when there were only a few Latinos trying to break into the industry.
"Rita and I were coming up, she can tell you, that was it [referring to the small number of Latinos]. We were doing A-list work," he said. "I knew her forever and we kept on meeting at functions, saying, 'We have got to work together!' Puerto Ricans, one of the few who could speak English without an accent. That was hard."
Elizondo, who knows all too well about typecasting and Latino stereotypes in Hollywood, pointed out that it's even harder for women in film, TV and theater to make it.
"She had it harder than I ... because women always do," he explained. "They have it three times harder."
Elizondo said that while he took a select few stereotypical roles to "pay the rent," playing characters with an accent, he was fortunate enough to have "more opportunities" and exposure to other roles.
"I was fortunate with theater training, the way I look, and the fact that I was able to deliver, so I sort of had a following. I didn't think of myself as a ground-breaker. I thought it was my right to be given the same shot. Just like a woman, I should get the same money, I do the same damn work, I should get the same shot. It's the same thing. I insisted on being accepted that way," he explained.
Producer Lin Manuel Miranda, whose Broadway hit "In the Heights" was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations (it also garnered a nomination for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is also enamored with Moreno's legacy.
"It's a huge honor for me, like everyone you know in this room we all grew up idolizing Rita Moreno. She has continued to reinvent herself over 50 years of this incredible career, and she looks incredible, like she looks incredible at every time now, and like at every turn!" Miranda told Latin Post before he presented Moreno with the Iconic Woman of Style 2014/Lifetime Achievement Award from Vanidades last month.
"I remember seeing her for the first time in the purple dress in 'West Side Story' when I was 12, and I remember seeing her at the SAG Awards [where she won the 50th Screen Actor's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award] two years ago when she stole the show with her amazing acceptance speech where she sang and flirted with Brad Pitt, I mean it was incredible. So, she's the best and I am thrilled that I get to present her the award."
"I am thrilled to pieces," Moreno told Latin Post on the Vanidades red carpet, where she wowed and yet again went on to steal the show!
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