Rita Moreno started singing from West Side Story.
Her voice was like garlic frying in butter, all these years later: crackling, yet smooth, and certain to linger long after.
The living legend—she is among the rare EGOT-winning class of performers—and I were speaking because her series One Day at a Time was about to make its debut on CBS. As she joked then, “I made some smart-ass remark recently on the social networks about how this show will not go away: ‘It’s like Norman Lear, New York vermin, and me.'” Then she laughed. “I didn’t want to say ‘cockroaches.’”
Norman Lear’s remake of his own renegade ’70s sitcom, this time with a Latinx cast led by Moreno and Justina Machado, has aired on Netflix, which canceled it, Pop TV, which rescued it, and, now, CBS—a streaming-to-cable-to-broadcast journey that might as well be its own Wild West movie about the rapidly evolving industry. (Why the unprecedented efforts to save it? Its almost unprecedented 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes score might advise.)
One Day at a Time was supposed to have its CBS premiere last week. The pandemic lockdown bored a hole in the network’s programming, and the airing rights that the network won as part of the show’s deal with Pop TV was a boon. But a rescheduled football game pushed the show’s premiere back a week, to this Monday. The crazy thing is that, whether it premiered 7 days ago or today, One Day at a Time will be the only broadcast TV series centered around a Latinx family.
“It’s depressing,” Moreno said, which we wrote about in our article last week, in which she and Lear talked about One Day at a Time coming to CBS. “I see that this industry has not learned too many lessons yet. They are doing really well with the Black community, as they should. The Black community, I am filled with admiration for what they have done for their own community and for their values. I’m just wondering why the hell we can’t do that. Where is our wonderful movie like Moonlight? What’s going on? I don’t get it.”
It didn’t fit into that article, but Moreno and I had a larger conversation about her heritage, the industry, and blind spots when it comes to Latinx and Hispanic cultures in Hollywood. She confessed that she nearly turned down her Oscar-winning role in West Side Story because of it. She sang to me the reasoning.
When we originally spoke, the remake of West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg was still on the 2020 release calendar. The film, in which Moreno will play a new character named Valentina, has since been moved to 2021 because of pandemic-related cinema closures. But what it will mean in terms of representation—and the end of industry stereotypes—was at the front of Moreno’s mind.
“It has corrected many, many of the wrongs, if not all of them,” she said. “Steven and Tony Kushner really worked their asses off to get it right.” While singing its praises and the clarifications that screenwriter Kushner made to the script, she was also careful not to disparage the original star-making film too much. “It's very different from the other without denigrating the other because it was still very, at the time, bold. And it was also ignorant.”
The dated sins and offensive portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the 1961 West Side Story movie are well documented. But Moreno’s experience making it is still illuminating.
She remembered complaining about how inauthentically dark her makeup was, and at one point confronting the makeup artist about it. He looked at her aghast and asked, “What, are you racist?” Moreno was shocked. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. You know I'm Puerto Rican?’ He said, yeah. ‘And you know what my skin color really looks like without this muddy stuff on?’ He said, yeah. I said, ‘What's racist about that?’”
Of course, he was nonplussed. “Poor George Chakiris always looked like he had been dipped in a bucket of mud,” she said, cackling.
What she wonders now is if she, at the time, really had any agency, if she was in a position to say that this wasn’t acceptable—to refuse to go on camera that way—and if she did, if anyone would have listened.
She said she was very close—“and I’m making a tiny, tiny thing with my fingers”—to not doing the movie. She had already gotten the part when she started studying the original lyrics to “America,” her character’s show-stopping number, and realized how denigrating they were. “I literally lost all the color in my face. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I can't do this.’”
At this point, she sang me that original lyric: “Puerto Rico / You ugly island / Island of tropic diseases…”
“I kept thinking, ‘I can't do this. I can't do this to my people. I can't do this,’” she said. “But I had to do this. I wanted that part so badly, as you could imagine, because it was a juicy, plum, wonderful role. And I got this close to calling my agent to say, ‘I'm afraid I'm going to have to renege.’”
The day she was going to pick up the phone and quit, she got a call from the studio. Without her intervention, the lyric had been changed. “Puerto Rico,” she sang over the phone. “My heart’s devotion / Let it sink back in the ocean.” She was okay with that line, because it’s clear that it’s a person’s opinion, not a racist, stereotype-perpetuating insult of an entire country.
“I cannot tell you how close I got to actually turning it down,” she said. “Now in those days, you know, it's possible that I could have said something, 'You know, I love this. And I am deeply flattered that you want me, but I can't say that lyric.' And they would have changed it. They did change it for that reason, except it had nothing to do with me. It just never occurred to me that I could bring that up.”
The fact that, all these decades later, there is finally an environment in which many minority-identifying actors can speak up for themselves emboldens her. But she still observes a situation in which her celebrated series, One Day at a Time, is the only Latinx-centered show on broadcast television, and is passionate about how much things still need to progress.
She’s spoken a lot recently about her experience attending the March on Washington in 1963, where she watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech alongside a Hollywood contingent that included Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte.
“That was the beginning of that huge changeover,” she said. “What is fascinating now is that we're doing it all over again for the very same reasons. And that's dismaying, to say the least. It’s so crazy. I mean it sounds so familiar. But what's different this time is that somehow we are more determined than ever.”