Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Meeting Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno.  ¡La Leyenda!  Love her, I truly do.  Ever since the first time I saw West Side Story on network television when I was a kid in South Central Los Angeles, I have been fascinated with the work of actress Rita Moreno.  Not just fascinated.  I've been enlightened, educated and -- of course -- entertained by her work.  You know that Moreno became the first Puerto Rican actress to win the Academy Award.  She won for her singing, dancing and dramatic acting in the classic movie musical, West Side Story.  It also won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1961.
Love me some Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story.  When she was on that NYC rooftop and sang the words "I love the island Manhattan," I wanted to be the Latina sister behind her in the red dress who responds "I know you do!"  Moreno was not the first Puerto Rican to win an Oscar for acting.  José Ferrer was Best Actor of 1950 for playing French character Cyrano de Bergerac.  He won by a nose.
 Rita Moreno was the first Puerto Rican actor to win an Oscar for playing a Puerto Rican.
She and dancer/actor George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants, were the only cast members nominated for Oscars.  He won Best Supporting Actor.
In 2000, I was the weekly entertainment editor/movie critic on Lifetime Live, a live weekday show on Lifetime Television produced by ABC News.  I did the Friday shows.  Rita Moreno was booked one afternoon as a live in-studio guest.  But not on a Friday.  I went to the studio on my day off just so I could meet her, shake her hand and thank her.  I've blogged before that I've had to crash through several color barriers in my career.  That's pretty much a given for us minority performers.  In the early days of my career, when I was determined to get some stage and film experience, I'd constantly hear "the part wasn't written for a black actor."  I'd counter with "Rita Moreno played Annie Sullivan in a Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker.  And she got great reviews."  She was my example and my motivation to crash through those color barriers. If someone hinted that I was the wrong color for a part that really wasn't race specific for the actor, her career was my weapon in my fight to be considered for the part.  Ms. Moreno had finished the interview and was standing in the hallway outside of our greenroom. My favorite segment producer introduced us.  I felt like an altar boy serving mass on Christmas morning.  I was giddy and reverent. I told her what I just told you, starting with the fact that I grew up in South Central LA, with black and Mexican American neighbors, and was a kid in the riot-torn Watts community of the 1960s.  When I got to the part about her taking on the Anne Bancroft's Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, her eyes beamed and she said, "Yes!"  Then, Rita Moreno took my hands like a loving mother, leaned forward, looked me squarely in the eyes and sweetly began, "Hijito, (son), whenever someone tells you that can't do something...and you know in your heart that you can do it......fuck em!"  Then she hugged me, kissed me and had her assistant pull out an 8x10 glossy that she autographed.  Rita Moreno was everything I'd hoped she be.  And more.  Fabulous.  The fact that she has only one Oscar nomination to her credit is more proof Hollywood needs to get it together with opportunities for minority actresses.  The fact that she never got an Emmy nomination during six seasons of strong work as the prison nun/psychologist in HBO's Oz series is a sin and a shame.  You agree?  "I know you do!"

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