En español | This December, Rita Moreno turns the big Nine-Oh and, like Fred Rogers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg before her, she's getting the documentary treatment. After premiering to rave reviews at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It hits theaters on June 18 and features interviews with the likes of Norman Lear (98), Chita Rivera (88) and Morgan Freeman (84). (And don't miss Moreno's AARP interview.)
It's no exaggeration to say that Moreno ranks among the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. As the film's executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “Rita is La Reina [the Queen]. Punto [period]. Full stop. Her life, talent and career is a master class in the American dream.” Here are eight reminders of Moreno's artistic greatness that you can brush up on before watching the film.
1. She's one of only 16 performers to be in the EGOT club.
In 1977, Moreno became the third person in history — after composer Richard Rodgers and actress Helen Hayes — to achieve the grand slam of performing awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. She started with a supporting actress Oscar in 1962 for West Side Story, followed by a 1972 Grammy for best recording for children for The Electric Company. After her 1975 supporting-actress Tony for The Ritz, she won a 1977 Emmy for her guest performance on The Muppet Show, famously singing “Fever” while being accompanied by Animal on the drums. As a cherry on top, she nabbed another Emmy the following year for her three-episode guest stint on The Rockford Files.
Watch: Her appearance on The Muppet Show on Disney+
2. … And she did it in record time.
Moreno earned her fourth major award at age 45, making her the youngest EGOT winner for decades. She now ranks third behind Frozen and The Book of Mormon composer Robert Lopez (at 39) and singer-songwriter John Legend (at 39 years, 8 months).
Watch: West Side Story, the film that got the awards ball rolling, on Amazon Prime
3. She's won every other cultural award you can imagine.
Over the years, she's racked up a Library of Congress Living Legends Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Medal of Arts, a Screen Actors Guild life achievement award, a Kennedy Center Honors lifetime artistic achievement award and a Peabody career achievement award. And, of course, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!
4. She started as a child star who beat the odds.
Hollywood history is littered with sad tales of young stars who couldn't cope with fame and were chewed up and spit out by the studio machine. Moreno bucked that trend. After moving to New York from Puerto Rico at age 5, she took dance lessons with the uncle of Rita Hayworth — who inspired the young Rosa Dolores Alverío's new stage name — and danced professionally in a Greenwich Village nightclub by age 9. Soon she was dubbing Spanish-language versions of American films and, at 13, made her Broadway debut in Skydrift.
Watch: Clips from Moreno's very first film, 1950's So Young, So Bad, about a reform school for girls
5. Her career has spanned decades.
A full 67 years after her movie debut in So Young, So Bad, Moreno started a four-season run on a remake of the classic sitcom One Day at a Time (2017-2020). Produced by Norman Lear (now 98), and Gloria Calderón Kellett, the new version followed L.A.'s Cuban-American Alvarez family, with Moreno stealing scenes as the feisty, joke-cracking matriarch, Lydia. Later this year, she returns in another much-anticipated remake, Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, in which she'll appear as Valentina — a gender-swapped version of Doc, the owner of the corner store where Tony works.
Watch: 39 episodes of One Day at a Time on Netflix
6. She has a very wide range.
Television fans will recognize Moreno from her widely divergent small-screen roles, starting with her Grammy-winning turn on the 1970s’ The Electric Company. Her voice may be equally recognizable to the next generation of children: She played the title role of the international thief on Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? (1994-1999). On the opposite end of the spectrum, she played Sister Peter Marie “Pete” Reimondo, a nun and psychologist who develops romantic feelings for a serial killer, in the very adult, very violent, very sexual HBO prison drama Oz.
Watch: The complete series of Oz on HBO Max — but don't say we didn't warn you about the content!
7. She's been a pioneer for the Latinx community.
It's hard to imagine Latina celebrities like Jennifer Lopez (51), Gloria Estefan (63) and Salma Hayek (54) having the robust careers they do without Moreno breaking ground first — not only with her bevy of “first” and “only” award wins, but also with her refusal to play stereotypes. Moreno told NPR in 2013 that after winning her Oscar, “I became the house ethnic. And that meant I had to play anything that was not American.” She was passed over for substantive or complex lead characters and instead cast as stereotypical Hawaiians, Native Americans, Egyptians, Filipinas and, in The King and I, a Burmese concubine — plus what she calls all the “Spanish spitfire” characters. Demoralized by the lack of nuance in such roles, she quit acting in movies for seven years, opting for theater work before returning in films like The Night of the Following Day, opposite her ex-boyfriend Marlon Brando.
Watch: The acclaimed Mike Nichols’ comedy Carnal Knowledge, one of her juiciest roles after her return to movies, on Amazon Prime Video
8. She's responsible for one of Hollywood's greatest musical moments.
With a melody by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (now 91), “America” in West Side Story is one of the most indelible musical scenes in cinema history. Who can forget Anita singing the praises of the United States against a percussive Latin beat? For her efforts, the American Film Institute ranked the song at number 35 on its “100 Years … 100 Songs” list.
Watch: The show-stopping song on YouTube