Multi-award-winning actress, singer and dancer, Rita Moreno, blazed an iconic trail as the first mainstream Hispanic actress to grace Hollywood when she exploded onto the big screen as Anita in 1961’s classic film, West Side Story.
The role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, crowning her the first Hispanic performer to ever win an Academy Award. But even after taking home Hollywood’s top prize, Moreno’s career started and stalled repeatedly throughout the 1960s as she fought to be cast in roles that didn’t box her in to antiquated stereotypes.
Though film roles for a leading lady of color were far and few between at the time, Rita Moreno turned her attention to television and music, taking home a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Children’s Album during her stint on the popular children’s television program and, The Electric Company. Then came a Tony Award in 1975 for her work in the Broadway production of, The Ritz. Soon, two prime-time Emmy’s followed in 1977 and 1978. Moreno was hard at work establishing herself as a bonified triple threat. She cemented an indelible legacy as one of the world’s most versatile and talented performers.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Moreno continued to take on roles on her own terms, proving her staying power for six decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she played Sister Peter Marie Reimondo in HBO’s first original and groundbreaking dramatic series, OZ.
Moreno currently stars as Abuelita Lydia Riera, the hilarious and spicy grandmother on the new incarnation of Norman Lear’s television creation, One Day at a Time, now streaming its third season on Netflix. The show’s official premise is, “Two Cultures, One Familia.” It’s an updated twist on the 1975 hit series starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington, but with a twist. The reboot centers around a Hispanic American family, no doubt Lear’s way of thumbing his nose at some of the more racist rhetoric flung through 2016’s presidential campaign.
In 2014, Actor Morgan Freeman presented Moreno with the Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, calling her “a world class actress, singer and dancer,” and just as significantly, “a fighter, who battled to break free of racial and sexual barriers that plagued Hollywood’s golden age.” Before there was Rosie Perez, Salma Hyek or Jennifer Lopez, there was the inimitable Rita Moreno.
Recently, Moreno got the call from Steven Spielberg, for a forthcoming remake of the film that made her an icon, West Side Story. Moreno will play a role in the film as well as Executive Produce. I recently sat down with Rita Moreno to discuss her one-of-a-kind career and journey.
TME: When you won your Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962 for the film, West Side Story, you thought you would then transcend racial stereotypes with the parts you would be offered.
Rita Moreno: And I was very disappointed (laughs). Not only disappointed, but it really, really broke my heart.
TME: I feel you. I’ve experienced it as a journalist, not in terms of ethnic discrimination, but the bewilderment of hitting a peak and then stalling. Your famous quote about this phase of your career was, “I showed them. I didn’t work for seven years.”
RM: When I say, “I showed them,” of course, I’m being facetious.
TME: Of course. And in this business, it’s very hard to turn down work. Writers write, Actors act, etc. It’s what you do, and you crave it.
RM: Not only crave it. It pays the rent.
TME: Yeah, and then there’s that! (Laughs) Any regrets about taking that stance?
RM: I think it was a very good decision on my part, because the only thing that was being offered, really, were gang movies, and they certainly weren’t as interesting as West Side Story. I think it would have depressed the heck out of me to go back to that stuff. It paid off in the sense that I had peace of mind and I didn’t feel like I was being insulted.
TME: Let’s talk about the amazing Norman Lear and the One Day at a Time reboot on Netflix you’re starring in.
RM: Isn’t he something?!
TME: I think he is a genius!
RM: He is a genius, you’re right. He’s still going strong. He’s going to be 96, and he can speak and he can walk (laughs). He’s a remarkable man, and a lovely, lovely person.
TME: All in the Family is my favorite sitcom of all time.
RM: Oh, it’s one of my favorite shows too!
TME: The way he has tackled race, gender, religion, sexuality… on and on, has helped to re-shape our society. The original One Day at a Time with Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington that premiered in 1975 was very progressive in that single motherhood was much more taboo at that time. With this updated version, there’s an extra layer to the story in that the family are Hispanic Americans. After all you went through in terms of fighting for roles that accurately represent Hispanic people, do you feel a sense of vindication at portraying a positive representation of a Hispanic family on television?
RM: Vindication implies that I’m still angry. No, I don’t feel any sense of vindication. I’m just so happy and so proud that Hispanics have more representation. I think we’re still not there. I think we are underrepresented. But feeling vindictive is a waste of time, don’t you think?
TME: Wrong choice of words. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, “a sense of wholeness.” I was watching an episode earlier, and there’s a scene where your character, Lydia, is talking about the racial slurs she had to endure in her generation. When her daughter and granddaughter ask her for specifics, Lydia summons up the courage to say the word “spic” out loud. The context of the scene is that she is dis-empowering that word that was so painful for her. To be able to stand there and say it, and dis-empower the word…
RM: What was so remarkable about that scene is that kids don’t even [fully] understand that word. It’s bizarre. Lydia is carrying on and on about the word “spic,” and everybody in the room is like, “Yeah, so?” It was a terrible word in my time. I love that!
TME: I have to give so much credit to the show’s creator, Norman Lear. The courage to look something in the eye and stare it down, man, and incorporate comedy into it is amazing.
RM: That’s a wonderful way to put it, yes. You’re right.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope viewers of the updated ODAAT will learn about Hispanic American families?
RM: It’s what I think they are learning, because we have now gained an American audience as well. We always, of course, had the Hispanic community watching the show. People who are not Hispanic are learning that family is family, is family. It’s universal. That’s what Norman was hoping for. You want the universality of the situation to work on people, and that’s what has happened. The moment of, “Oh My God. We’re like that too!” Just add in some spice and some deliciousness, which is the Hispanic nature of the show.
TME: If you live in a smaller town in the United States, where you are only surrounded by people who are just like you, it’s so easy to dismiss other types of people, because you don’t have to get to know them. Once you get to know people who are different from you and you see their humanity, it becomes much harder to be dismissive.
RM: Yeah. And I find that a lot of people who watch our show just love Lydia. She’s so outrageous and so big. Children love Lydia. Go figure!
TME: Because your character is that bridge between what was and what is. You’re teetering on the edge between the old school stuff that you came of age with, while trying to embrace the world we’re living in now.
RM: She’s familiar with what she calls “JouTube.” (Moreno puts on a Cuban accent) and “SnapChap.” (Laughs) But she’s familiar with it, which is terrific. It’s because we have a room full of young writers who are all into that kind of stuff. For the new season, there’s an episode that guest stars Gloria Estefan. It’s hilarious. She plays my sister, and all I can tell you is we hate each other. The whole episode is centered around a funeral of an aunt, and Gloria’s character comes to town to attend the funeral. Gloria is absolutely, deliciously funny! And of course, we’re both over the top as we’re trying to do air kisses that are about three feet apart.
TME: When you hear other Hispanic performers speak, and I know I have heard this from Jennifer Lopez, they always refer to you as the gold standard of excellence and inspiration. You were the performer who made them believe that this career was achievable for them. Have you had a chance to speak to any of the younger Latino actors and singers about your influence on them?
RM: I’ve heard it from Jennifer, and I’ve heard it from Rosie Perez, and also from Andy Garcia.
TME: As someone who emigrated to the states from Puerto Rico as a young girl and who wanted to be a performer, who did you look to as a blueprint?
RM: Well, you know what? No, there were no role models when I was young and in the movies in my late teens. There was nobody. So, I chose one for myself. I chose Elizabeth Taylor because she was close to my age and she was brunette (laughs); and she was beautiful and gorgeous. I made her my role model. But, you know, there was just nobody that looked like me in a public [space]. The Hispanic community very often calls me La Pionera, the Pioneer.
TME: How do you define yourself as a human being?
RM: I’m a family person before anything else. I have a daughter, Fernanda Louisa, that I’m insane about. And I have two grandsons, and that is where I live. They are in my heart all the time. I adore them, and I don’t have much family; I never did because I left Puerto Rico with my mom on a ship, and that was the end of family. I never saw them again. I had a brother that I never saw. His name was Francisco.
TME: And there was no contact after you left Puerto Rico? That was it?
RM: No, and I attribute that to my mom. For whatever reasons, she just stayed away. I don’t know how to explain it, because I don’t understand it. By the time I did try to find him, I couldn’t find him. About a month or two after my book came out (Rita Moreno: A Memoir/Celebra Books), I heard that he died. I have a half-brother, Sam Alverio, because that’s my true [last] name. I’m Rosa Dolores Alverío (she speaks her full birth name, punctuated with the pride of a strong Puerto Rican accent). I speak to him on the phone now and then. That’s about it. Like many Hispanic people, I’m sure I have tons and tons of distant cousins.
TME: How do you find peace in your heart regarding the brother who passed away?
RM: I just have to tell myself that it’s not my fault. My mom, for whatever reason, she always had difficulties with men. I had four stepfathers. It doesn’t make me happy, but that’s the reality of the situation.
TME: Let’s talk about the upcoming remake of the film West Side Story. That’s a hell of a segue!
RM: Isn’t that astonishing though? Talk about coming full circle.
TME: How did you become involved as Executive Producer?
RM: [Steven Spielberg] always wanted to do the film, and he was a good friend of Robert Wise, who co-directed the original film with Jerome Robbins. When the original West Side Story film came out [in 1961] Steven was crazy about it, and that’s when he got very close to Robert Wise. He said he just hounded him about how the film was shot. It’s something he always wanted to re-do. The interesting thing is that he’s not updating it. It will still take place in 1957. It’s Romeo and Juliet. What’s wonderful about the young girl that he chose for the remake (17-year-old newcomer, Rachel Zegler) is a young girl.
Natalie Wood was a woman. I was a woman, playing Anita. I was really, way too old for that role. But that’s how it happened, then. Tony Kushner is doing the script. He wrote Angels in America. They both thought that the original part of Doc (the candy store owner in the 1961 film played by Ned Glass) was not fully realized, which I think is true. They both agreed that they weren’t terribly interested in that role for the remake. One, or both of them said, “What about Rita Moreno as Doc’s wife?” So, the storyline in the new film will be that Doc passed away, and now it’s Valentina who runs the candy store. They offered the Executive Producer credit to me, because Steven feels that I am the bridge to this movie.
TME: You’re offering all this first-person insight into what went on during the filming of the original movie.
RM: Exactly. He’s asked me a lot of questions, and he will probably ask even more. We talk about the shots all the time, because, you know, the director of the original film, Bob Wise, was really an editor. He was a great, great editor. He did Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.
TME: With the original West Side Story, Natalie Wood who played Maria, was not Hispanic. She also didn’t sing. She lip synced the songs (Marni Nixon voiced Natalie Wood’s songs in the original West Side Story). This isn’t a knock at Natalie Wood, who did a great job in the role, but with the times we’re living in now, people would now be hyper-sensitive to something like that. Is the young actress who will play Maria in the remake, of Puerto Rican descent?
RM: She’s Hispanic and that’s what counts. I think she’s Columbian. Here’s the thing; she’s Hispanic, she sings and she’s seventeen. With Romeo and Juliet, that’s how old Juliet was supposed to be. She’s very young. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have been absolutely crazy when it comes to finding Hispanic people to play the Hispanic roles. They even called the University of Puerto Rico and made an appointment for a panel meeting with an audience who were allowed to ask questions about the movie, and [express] how they felt about it. So, they really, really killed themselves with respect to that. But I did tell Steven, I said, “You know there are always people with agendas. There will always be somebody who’s not happy with it because of… whatever. So, get used to that. It’s going to happen.”
TME: You can’t make everybody happy. I remember when Jennifer Lopez played Selena Quintanilla in the biopic, Selena, and people were in an uproar because Jennifer’s not Mexican like Selena was.
RM: That just makes me furious. Let’s put it this way, if I’m playing a Jewish person in a movie, is it going to matter if I am a Sephardic Jew or a Russian Jew? It’s outrageous. You can’t always find the one you want because we’re now talking about someone who can sing and who knows music who can dance, come on!
TME: I’m sure you’ve heard the acronym, EGOT – for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner. You are one.
RM: Mine has one extra letter. I’m a KEGOT. The “K” is for a Kennedy Center Honors award. How do you like that?
TME: Where are all these awards displayed throughout your home?
RM: They’re on several shelves, because I have a bunch of them. And, Oh My God, this year I’m getting so many. I have a feeling that they’re all saying to each other, “Quick, let’s honor her before she kicks the bucket!” Now it’s getting ridiculous, and I’ve actually turned some of them down.
TME: You could get a really big, ostentatious wall unit curio and make it the awards curio.
(Rita bursts out laughing at this idea)
RM: There is a thing called overexposure. I’m really trying to cool it a little bit.
TME: How do you process all of that? It’s hard enough to break through as a performer, but you’ve won every coveted award there is. Do you process it through your ego? Do you process it through your heart? Do you see it from a higher perspective?
RM: When I pass by all of these awards in the living room, and my living room is two steps down from the rest of the house, so I don’t go in there often… but when I’m in the living room and I look at these shelves, I sometimes stop and look at them and say, “My God. What an extraordinary journey this has been.” This little Puerto Rican girl; born in Puerto Rico, brought up in the United States… how astonishing is that? It’s fabulous and I cannot be casual about it. I’m not. I’m absolutely stunned.
TME: You feel a sense of awe. It’s not, “Look at me.” It’s, “Look at this amazing journey.”
RM: Oh. hell no! I feel a sense of awe. How did this happen?! I say that to myself, “How on earth did this happen? Wow!” I wish so much that my mom was alive to see this. Oh God, I miss her so much. She would be so proud. She did live long enough to attend the Oscars with me.
Season three of “One Day at a Time” is now streaming on Netflix. Follow Rita Moreno on Twitter and Instagram @theritamoreno.
Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life
The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God.
Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes.
Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God.
We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant.
Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed.
Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus.
Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship.
Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care.
The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love.
Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls.
Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now!
Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!
Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer!
First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive!
So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance.
Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth.
The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge!
First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer.
A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now!
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.
The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.
The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.
The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.