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Rita Moreno reflects on life as an entertainer, stereotype roles in Hollywood

October 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Rita Moreno is one of only a few entertainers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and an Oscar -- and the only Latino American to hold that honor. In a new self-titled memoir, Moreno describes finding her place in show business. She sits down with Ray Suarez to discuss the continuing struggle for minorities to land significant roles.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the remarkable career of an entertainment legend.

Actress Rita Moreno has put her life story into a new book.

Ray Suarez caught up with her yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: Born Rosita Dolores Alverio in small-town Puerto Rico in the midst of the Great Depression, Moreno headed to work as an entertainer at 13 and was on Broadway and in Hollywood before she was 20. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2004, and the National Medal of the Arts by President Obama in 2009. The Library of Congress has called her a living legend.

She is one of the few performers in history to win an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and an Oscar. Now, after a long career and a long life, Rita Moreno can take the long view, and she does that in her new self-titled memoir.

Rita Moreno, great to see you.

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RITA MORENO: You, too, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: I sat down with Moreno in Washington. She says, for today’s Rositas, breaking in is still hard.

RITA MORENO: It’s different. It’s different, and it’s better.

But, you know, I have to say — and I’m quoting Ricardo Montalban, who really said it best a number of years ago, but it’s still — it’s still apt.

He said, the door is ajar, and it’s a big, heavy door, too. So, if you’re going to look for opportunities, you’re going to have to have some strength to push that more open. It’s certainly better, and it’s wonderful to see more Hispanic names on the professional scene, from my end, in show business.

But I’m still waiting to see an actor or actress of Hispanic descent being offered a role that is worthy perhaps of an Oscar nomination. I have talked to a lot of young people, and I always do. It’s a part of my modus vivendi. And the one thing they always ask is, well, why are you the only one?

And I really don’t think it’s that complicated. I think it is because I don’t think the — our people, our actors have yet gotten something that’s really very, very strong and meaningful.

RAY SUAREZ: Moreno learned the hard way how being different in Hollywood could shape or deform a career. In the PBS documentary series “Latino Americans,” she told of being pushed into role after role as an all-purpose ethnic, peasant clothes and hoop earrings, brown makeup, speaking a language you might call not from here.

RITA MORENO: I have played Polynesian. I have played an Arabian girl. I played an East Indian girl. And what was so confusing about that, which I mention in my book, is that I assumed I had to have an accent.

Nobody said anything, so I made up what I call the universal ethnic accent, and they all sounded alike. It didn’t matter who I was playing. Polynesian? They would all talk like this.

RAY SUAREZ: Moreno, now 81, sees today’s performers as more free to be themselves, less often forced to play to stereotype, and she’s glad.

RITA MORENO: What happens is that you begin to live a double life, your life at home with mommy and poppy and your friends, and your life out there where — and I did. I accommodated that almost completely, because I really believed that that’s how it had to be.

I’m no longer ashamed of it. I was for many, many years, especially during the years when I was dissembling that way. But I didn’t know any other way to do, any other way to be. And I wore too much makeup, and I did all of that Conchita-Lolita stuff. You know, I wore very tight dresses and then would be offended when — when men would make remarks about me.

RAY SUAREZ: Moreno told me she’s always been an optimist. She says the doors are opening, if slowly, to the professions, to positions of power, to influence in the culture in a way she couldn’t have imagined when she was young.

RITA MORENO: I think it has changed.

As I said earlier, the door is certainly more open than it was for us. And when I say us, I’m really speaking of so many other people. I mean, let’s face it. How often do you see an Asian face in films and television? They are practically invisible. Now and then, you will get one, and, interestingly, he gets the role of a scientist. Isn’t that interesting?

Well, at least he’s not a spitfire. Right? He’s not wearing, or she, off-the-shoulder clothes. Yes, it’s changed, and it’s good, but I think — I don’t think that a lot of people think of us as contributors to the culture of this country.

RAY SUAREZ: Rita Moreno is the author of “Rita Moreno: Memoir.”

Great to talk to you.

RITA MORENO: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She’s an inspiration to all of us.

GWEN IFILL: I want to be her when I grow up.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Me, too.

The final installment in the series “Latino Americans” runs tonight on PBS.