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Rita Moreno homage from LALIFF

GABI RECIPIENT RETROSPECTIVE: RITA MORENO (Retrospectiva Premio Gabi: Rita Moreno)

Each year the Festival honors an artist’s career and contribution to cinema with the “Gabi”, Gabriel Figueroa Lifetime Achievement Award. This award is the heart and soul of the Festival and has been bestowed in the past to Raúl Julia, Carlos Saura, María Félix, Anthony Quinn, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Federico Luppi and of course, Gabriel Figueroa.
This year, in its eight edition, LOS ANGELES LATINO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (LALIFF) will honor actor RITA MORENO with this award.

Rita Moreno’s almost sixty year career encompasses the Golden age of the Hollywood studios, the advancement of broadcast television and cable, the rise of the independent film, and the Broadway stage. She is one of a handful of women, and the only Latina to have won every major award a performing artist can earn, an Academy Award, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. Moreno personally grappled with the issue of screen stereotypes of Latinas and how these roles would limit career opportunities and degrade communities, cultures and countries. After a turbulent and confusing period full of personal as well as career high and lows, she emerged triumphant.

Her rise and prominence in films coincided with the great Puerto Rican migration to the North East cities of the U.S. mainland right after World War II and she along with fellow Puerto Rican Best actor Oscar winner Jose Ferrer, became a beacon of the promise of America.

The actress won an Academy Award as Best Supporting actress in 1961 for her role as the fiery Anita, in the classic film version of the musical stage play “West Side Story” that left an indelible imprint on a generation of baby boomers and still affects new audiences today.

After three decades in a wide variety of roles in television dramas and variety shows Moreno won television’s Emmy Award as best supporting actress for her guest starring role as Polish Rita Captovic on the popular TV series “The Rockford Files” in 1978 opposite James Garner. She was a pioneer in children’s educational television with her role in the PBS series “The Electric Company “ that led to her winning the recording Industry’s’ Grammy award for her vocal participation in the cast album. On the Broadway stage, she created the role of the kooky stage struck Latina with an amazing resiliency, Googie Gomez in “The Ritz” for which she won a Tony award as Best supporting actress in a musical. On HBO’s groundbreaking and controversial long running cable television series “Oz” her searing multifaceted portrayal of the prison facilities resident psychologist Sister Peter Marie brought her much attention and critical acclaim.

Most recently she guest starred on the landmark Showtime cable and PBS series “Resurrection Blvd.” and “American Family” respectively, the first series to be produced written and directed by Latinos.

Rita Moreno, called “Rosita” was born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico on December 11, 1931. She came from a family of small independent farmers with land at the edge of El Yungue rainforest. In the 1930’s , however the pressures of the Great Depression and the side effects of the island’s industrialization forced her family to move to New York City where her mother found work in the garment industry.

At an early age, Rosita discovered the joys of singing and dancing and her mother recognizing her talent paid with her modest wages for professional lessons. Rosita made her professional Broadway debut in 1945 in the play “Skydrift” with Eli Wallach, where she was spotted by a Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studio talent scout.

Brought to Hollywood, she was given a screen test and offered an MGM contract by studio chief Louis B. Mayer who insisted she change her name to “Rita.” She found herself in bit parts and small roles in such films as the now classic “Singing in the Rain.” She worked in musicals, westerns, and period dramas with many of the studio’s top stars of the era, including Gene Kelly, Howard Keel and Mario Lanza in such films as “The Toast of New Orleans” and. “Pagan Love Song.”

With hopes and expectations high, she hoped to be the next Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Powell or Debbie Reynolds, but her olive skin; dark beauty and name did not fit into the all-American girl mold envisioned by Hollywood. She quickly found that the studio was not quite sure where to place her.

During this period Moreno co- starred as the girlfriend of a young boxer from East LA played by Lalo Rios in a low budget independent film called “The Ring.” Years later it was recognized as one of the first films to examine the social plight of Mexican –Americans with a largely all-Latino cast.

After her contract expired at MGM. She was put under contract at Twentieth Century Fox where she became the studio’s resident young exotic Latina player. Moreno played a variety of ethnic native girls, cantina girls and Latin spitfires with bad accents in a number of films opposite such stars as Anthony Quinn, Tyrone Power and Gary Cooper.

Though most of the roles were changeless, rote and demeaning, she worked and excersized her craft. Always the working actress she also appeared in many of the early television series and dramatic anthologies as well as variety shows.

Her performing talents were noticed as the doomed young princess Tuptim, in the classic Academy ward winning musical film of “The King and I” starring Yul Brynner and Debora Kerr, which led to her being cast in “West Side Story.”

The reconfiguration of Romeo and Juliet among the Caucasian and Puerto Rican street gangs of 1950’s New York City, then grappling with the very real problem of ethnic conflict, juvenile delinquency and immigration, touched and spoke to a generation.
“West Side Story” was innovative in its use of young performers, jazz inflected choreography and Leonard Bernstein score. The movie became one of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood Film history, winning nine Academy Awards.


The part of Anita was coveted by many of the young actresses in Hollywood but Rita’s talent, training and determination and years of hard work payed off when she auditioned for the hard taskmaster Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise who cast her in the role.

When the opportunity presented itself, she was ready.

Her deft and passionate portrayal of the strong willed Anita and her pairng with George Chakiris as her Shark’s gang leader boyfriend Bernardo, heated up the screen. Moreno’s glorious sexy mambo dance sequence at the high school gym with Chakiris, her rooftop singing of “America” and the cautionary song “Stick to your own Kind ” brought together her fierce singing, dancing and acting talents.

With an Oscar, an actor expects better and more varied film roles, but none did come her way for Moreno, just more of the stereotypical one dimensional roles she had played previously and none of the roles she desperately wanted to play that offered her the opportunity to demonstrate her range as an actress.

The Oscar wining actress refused the demeaning roles that were offered and as a result she did not work in motion pictures for seven years. She returned to the stage which offered her acting challenges in both the U.S. and Britain in Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brunsteins Window,” Hal Prince’s production of “She Loves Me” and the female lead opposite the late Robert Shaw in “Gantry.” among others

When Moreno did return to films, it was with Marlon Brando in “The Night of the Following Day,” with Alan Arkin, in the Spanish Harlem Puerto Rican set social comedy, “Popi” and as part of the important acting ensemble that included Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichol’s Oscar winning “Carnal Knowledge.”

The actress recreated her Tony Award winning portrayal of the spectacularly untalented Bathhouse entertainer Googie Gomez in the film version of “The Ritz” in 1975.

Since then she has appeared in such films as “The Four Seasons” opposite Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, Darnell Martin’s “I Like It Like That,” Leon Ichasso’s “Pinero” opposite Benjamin Bratt and most recently John Sayles “La Casa De Los Babys.”

More than forty years later, Moreno remains the only Latin woman to have won an Academy Award in the acting category.

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Chatelin Bruno
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