West Side Story’s Rita Moreno: ‘J-Lo can’t be sole representative’ of Latinos

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By Emma Jones-Entertainment reporter

https://www.bbc.com-image copyright Loomis Dean/Sundance Institute

image caption The Rita Moreno documentary looks back at the Puerto Rican performer’s life, and towards her future

Rita Moreno, the first Hispanic actress to win an Oscar, has said that “Jennifer Lopez can’t be the sole representative” of the Hispanic community when it comes to having a meaningful onscreen presence.

A documentary about Moreno, who won her best supporting actress Oscar for West Side Story in 1962, premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival.

Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, looks back at the Puerto Rican performer’s life, and her future – the 89-year-old also stars in Steven Spielberg’s delayed new big screen version of the hit musical.

Lopez sang her song Let’s Get Loud in Spanish during her performance at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden last month. But although Moreno welcomes greater equality and diversity within the film industry, she argues that the Hispanic community still isn’t as visible as it should be.

“The Hispanic community in America has barely moved. And I’m really upset about that,” she says.

“And because it’s barely moved, I’m thinking that at my age, I’m not going to see a real change. We can’t just let Jennifer Lopez be the sole representative of the Hispanic community.

“I’m probably going to be quoted and inundated with phone calls of people saying, ‘You don’t like her.’ No, I love her. She’s brilliant, she’s wonderful, she’s gorgeous, and her part in the inauguration was touching, but we can’t make her the sole representative of what we are.

“I love her, I admire her spunk, I admire her talent, and her talent for business. She’s fantastic, but… it’s like saying that any one of the great black actors is the representative of that community. It’s not enough, we can’t still be playing the same role over and over.”

‘Stereotypical roles’

Produced by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the documentary examines the sexual assault and on-screen stereotyping that Moreno suffered when she first went to Hollywood.

Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria recounts how Moreno was required to produce a standard “foreign” accent for the early parts she played, no matter what country the characters were from.

The film’s Puerto Rican director, Mariem Pérez Riera, says Longoria could relate to Moreno’s experiences, as stereotyping was still a problem for actresses of colour.

“I think Eva Longoria has had to struggle so much, and she is almost 50 years younger than Rita, so yes, it’s incredible how so many women today are still fighting fights that Rita had back then,” says the director.

“I think it’s part of the fact that for so long also, the black community has been also pushed down into only one stereotypical role. And it’s the same with the Latin American community.

“I mean, I’m from Puerto Rico, I live in the United States, I have an accent, I can speak two languages, and I’m a film director. But there’s not a role in a movie or in a TV show like me, because this is not supposed to be a Latina woman. It’s supposed to be the one who crossed the border and cleaned houses and is suffering all the time.”

Directing debuts

However, in a historic week that saw three female film directors nominated at the Golden Globes, two of which – Regina King and Chloe Zhao – are women of colour, the Sundance Film Festival also announced it had achieved gender parity across the event, and of those female film-makers, nearly half were women of colour.

The winner of the US Grand Jury prize, Coda, about a teenage girl who is the only hearing person in her family, is directed by Sian Heder, who was a writer on Orange is the New Black. The film sparked a bidding war and was bought by Apple TV + for $25m (£18m).

Two high profile actresses, Robin Wright from House of Cards, and British star Rebecca Hall, launched their directing debuts at the festival. Wright also stars in her film, Land, about a woman attempting to survive in the American wilderness.

Hall’s film, Passing, which she co-wrote, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and explores black women “passing” as white because of their light skin in 1920s New York.

But even Wright and Hall have recounted how their films struggled to get funding. Passing producer Margot Hand said in conversation with movie website Indiewire that having two black leading actresses and a first-time female film-maker proved “challenging” when trying to get it made.

Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond, whose first feature horror film, Censor, also premiered at Sundance, thinks women are still facing obstacles when trying to reach the highest level of some areas of film production.

“It’s interesting that a lot of A-list actresses are moving into directing, and I think that’s brilliant, but it can be harder for women not coming up through the acting route,” she says.

“If you want to move up working on the ‘craft’ side, it’s about people trusting you with more money. So, women in different film departments get more opportunities at a certain level, but when it comes to trusting, say, a female composer with more money, we’re not quite breaking through on those levels yet.

“However, from where I’m sitting now, it’s looking very hopeful, and it’s very important for young women to see it’s possible.”

Bailey-Bond’s film Censor is set in the 1980s world of “video nasties”, with a heroine, Enid, who works in film censorship and is forced to watch violent acts on screen.

She says that both she and Rose Glass, the director of St Maud, a British horror film that has 17 nominations at this year’s Bifa independent film awards, have benefited from changes in attitudes towards women making horror films.

“I definitely had a period of making short films where horror and female directors weren’t appealing,” she remembers.

“Luckily when we were writing Censor a couple of years ago, that all changed – films like Julia Ducornau’s Raw, and The Babadook, were released. The people who took chances on those directors changed things for directors like me down the line.”

Meanwhile Karen Cinorre, another first-time feature film maker, agrees that it’s “heartening” to know female-directed and themed movies are no longer so rare.

Her film, Mayday, starring Juliette Lewis and Mia Goth in an ensemble cast of women, is a play on the Greek “Siren” myth – creatures whose beautiful voices lure warriors to their death.

Set on an island seemingly frozen in time, the young women, with Goth playing their leader, lure male soldiers to their death with their “damsel in distress” calls.

“We know that films by women and about women have always been made,” says New York-based Cinorre. “They’re my heroines and I’ve sought out those films my whole life. But in a more mainstream way, they’ve been rare.

“Now the idea of an all-female ensemble cast of women seems to be thriving, and it didn’t used to be. And that’s also why I find those Golden Globe nominations heartening, but not actually surprising.”

The BBC Talking Movies Sundance special is available on BBC iPlayer. BBC World News viewers can find the latest show times at bbc.com/talkingmovies.

 

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