Rita Moreno on ‘West Side Story,’ race in Hollywood, and trauma

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

Rita Moreno’s career-defining role was in the 1961 film “West Side Story,” about a couple in love amid gang wars in New York’s upper west side. Her role as a Puerto Rican immigrant named Anita earned her an Oscar, making her the first Latina to win the esteemed award. It was a meatier role than she received in the past, when she was typecast in demeaning “island girl” roles. Despite her breakthrough success, she wasn’t offered fulfilling film roles for years.

So then she went on TV. In 1971, she joined “The Electric Company,” a new children’s show on PBS, for which she won a Grammy. A few years later, she won a Tony Award for her role in Terrance McNally’s play “The Ritz,” and eventually won an Emmy for her role in a 1970s episode of “The Muppet Show.” The win made her the third person to rise to EGOT status — the honor bestowed upon entertainers who win all four major entertainment awards. 

Now she’s 90 years old and appears in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” playing Valentina, a shopkeeper who is the moral center of the story (the character used to be a man named Doc).

“That's just maybe one of the finest things that has ever happened to me ever, ever in my whole life,” she tells Press Play.

She says that Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the playwright behind “Angels in America,” were determined to make a film showing the devastation of residents being pushed out of their homes (the so-called “slum clearance” in New York to make way for Lincoln Center), and included Hispanics playing Hispanic roles.

Handling sexual assault on and offscreen 

In the 1961 film, Anita is nearly raped by white boys in Doc’s store and he intervenes. In this year’s version, Valentina intervenes. Moreno explains the feeling of saving her past self (Ariana DeBose plays Anita in 2021): “It was uncomfortable. It didn't feel real. … I had a hard time getting myself into that scene. I don't know that I ever succeeded. … I'm playing the part of Doc saying, ‘You boy, stop this. You're a disgrace, blah blah blah blah.’ It was so strange. I don't think it was any more comfortable for Ariana DeBose … she's the new Anita for the ages. But I think I had a much harder time.”

Moreno was raped in real life by her agent when she was young, as she tells in the new documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which is streaming on Netflix and PBS. 

She didn’t call on that experience for the new “West Side Story,” she says. “After rehearsing for several days … I just burst into tears and was sobbing hysterically. I couldn't go on with the scene. … And I thought I had been fine before that, but you forget that sometimes wounds don't heal as well as you think they have. And I was just one big bleeding wound. And in fact, they had to stop shooting and call it early lunch because I couldn't stop crying. … The boys knew what was happening to me. … They were surrounding me and hugging me and saying, ‘Oh, Rita, please don't cry. Oh my God, the audience is gonna hate us. Please please please stop. It’s okay. We love you.’ All of that. And I couldn't stop crying. So there you go. You never know when you're going to be attacked by the past.”

She adds that you may think you’re fine or strong. “And you're neither as fine or as strong as you may think you are.”

Hard-working ethic from her mother

The documentary shows how much Moreno fought to be taken seriously and get what she wanted. “I have had a lot of low moments in my life. … But you go on. I mean what are you going to do — quit? It's not in my nature. It’s not in my mom's nature. My goodness, this is a woman who brought me to America, barely knowing a bit of English, working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. And there I was with her. She was astonishing. … When there's so much beautiful kind of success shining on me ... I want so badly to see my mama again and say, ‘Look, look what we did.’ I truly miss her terribly.”

Moreno and her mom immigrated to America together and left the rest of their family behind. Her mom helped her career-wise, taking her to auditions and sewing her costumes. 

“She was working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. She would drop me off at school when I was very young, take two buses and a subway to the sweatshop place, and then come back and pick me up after school,” Moreno says. “On the days when she had a full day of work, she couldn't do that, and I would just stay at school. Or she would give me a key and I would open the door of our tenement apartment, and look after myself and have some milk and cookies or cake. And that's how it worked. And you know what? It's nothing to feel horrible about because it worked.”

Rita Moreno is behind the scenes of the 1961 film “West Side Story” — as shown in the film “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It.” Photo courtesy of MGM Media Licensing.

“I was definitely not going to be a movie star”

Moreno got her big break in 1950, when she signed a five-year contract with MGM. However, it only lasted three years. 

“​I think the reason they had to let me go was that they didn't know what to do with me. … Why was that so difficult? Well, because I had a Spanish name or a Latina name, and I had dark eyes,” she explains. “It was a heartbreak. I cannot even describe when I realized that I was definitely not going to be a movie star.”

Born Rosita Dolores Alverio Marcano, Moreno eventually changed her name. She brainstormed new name ideas with MGM’s casting director. And they settled upon “Rita Moreno.” Rita was derived from actress Rita Hayworth’s name, and Moreno was her stepfather’s last name. 

“A really bizarre relationship” with Marlon Brando

After meeting actor Marlon Brando in her 20s, Moreno dated the star of “A Streetcar Called Desire” on-and-off for eight years, and their relationship was public knowledge.

However, she says, “He literally kept me hidden. We never went out. And when we did, it would be to an Italian restaurant [in] way downtown LA. So a lot of people didn't know. He did not want to have to deal with all that romance crap in public relations. And he felt that his private life was his business. Silly boy.”

She admits that she was attracted to Brando partly because he was a huge star who also wanted her. 

“I had at that point, I think, four or five fathers. And at this point, when a man who I found immensely attractive accepted me, that was a big deal. I was even attached to him for all the wrong reasons. ... We had a sexually incredible life together. But you know, that could only work for a while.”

Over the years, the two often argued, broke up, and got back together. 

“When you're with someone like that in your life, who is tricky and devious, and in many respects a liar, you have to be on guard all the time. I knew everything about him, and it got to the point where when he lied to me, I'd look at him I’d say, ‘You're not telling the truth, are you?’ And he would get this funny poop-eating grin on his face,” Moreno says. “He kind of loved that about me. He loved it [that] I was so clever and as devious as he, [and] in some ways that I knew him inside out and upside down. It turned him on, in fact. We had a really bizarre relationship.”

Needing Leonard Gordon

A few years later, Moreno married Leonard Gordon and stayed with him until he died in 2010. She admits that she stayed out of a sense of need, though she loved him dearly.

“I really didn't know how to leave him. I was scared to death. … I believed that I would be lost without him, and that I would be helpless without him. And I believed it down to my very bones,” she explains. “I just didn't think I was fit to handle a separation in any way — paying the rent, taking care of myself, like I used to before I was married to him. But somehow I got the impression from him, this was not conscious on both our parts, that I could not do without him, that he was my savior, that he could take care of me.” 

Looking back

After a decades-long career, Moreno says she’s come a long way and fondly looks back on her life pre-stardom. 

“It's not bad for a kid who really lived through a lot of poverty. We were on something called home relief, which at the time was really welfare. And I remember very clearly going to this huge warehouse and with my mom, picking clothing for me and for her from different tables. That's how hard it was. … But I never perceived it that way. My mom, she always fed me well. She was just a wonderful mom.”