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Why Rita Moreno Disappeared From Hollywood For 7 Years After Winning Her Oscar

Photo Credit: Kaye / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Kaye / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Usually, winning an Oscar skyrockets an actor’s career in Hollywood. However, that isn’t always how it goes, especially in the case of Rita Moreno. The actress would secure her Oscar at the 1962 award ceremony, but it would cast her career into darkness, causing her to disappear for seven years before returning to the silver screen.

Rita Moreno’s struggle with typecasting

Headshot of Rita Moreno.
Headshot of Rita Moreno. (Photo Credit: John Springer Collection / CORBIS / Corbis / Getty Images)

Rita Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico in 1931, and in 1936, she and her mother moved to New York City. They moved to Hollywood when Moreno was a teenager, living just steps from MGM, and she would later reflect on how she visited MGM’s founder Louis D. Mayer at the Waldorf-Astoria, to which he exclaimed, “Wow! She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!” Throughout the 1950s, she would act in small roles that typecast her because she was Spanish.

“I became the house ethnic,” Moreno said. She said that she would fit the bill for any part that wasn’t explicitly white, even those that weren’t Latina. “I call that my dusky maiden period,” she explained. Stuck in a typecast box, Moreno had to perfect a generic “ethnic” accent to keep securing roles, even though she spoke perfect English.

Anita was a turning point for her

Rita Moreno sitting on the floor, laughing.
Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story. (Photo Credit: United Artists / MoviePics1001 / MovieStillsDB)

By 1961, Moreno was still being cast in solely ethnic roles, this time as Anita in the musical West Side Story. However, the role of Anita offered the actress far more than her previous roles. “[She] became my role model after all those years,” Moreno said of the role.

Even on set for the musical, Moreno had to fight against prejudice. In fact, it is thanks to Moreno that the lyrics to “America” were changed from “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases” to “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.” However, there were other barriers that she was unable to break during filming. When she complained that her makeup was too dark, she herself was accused of being racist.

Winning the Oscar came as a shock

Rita Moreno holding her Oscar statuette.
Actress Rita Moreno is shown here smiling as she holds her Academy Award. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

So, when it came time for the 1962 Academy Awards, her nomination as Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story was welcomed, but she had no expectation of winning the category. So much so that she almost didn’t attend the ceremony as she was busy filming a movie in the Philippines. Naturally, with virtually no expectation of winning, Moreno didn’t prepare an acceptance speech.

That explains why when her name was called, and she stood on stage to accept the award, she gave one of the shortest speeches ever given in Academy Award history. Later in life, she explained that on her way up to the stage, she made two rules for herself: “[The first was] don’t run; it’s not dignified … [and] do not thank anyone. They didn’t give you the part as a favor. They were forced to give it to you because you did the best screen test.” Moreno followed these rules, thanking no one in her speech and quickly rushing off stage.

The Oscar didn’t change much

Rita Moreno and others dancing in 'West Side Story.'
Rita Moreno dancing in a publicity image issued for the film adaptation of West Side Story, 1961. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

Following the ceremony, Moreno rushed back to the Philippines. She didn’t have time to stay and basque in her win with colleagues and peers. After winning such an impressive title, she thought maybe things would change in her career. However, she was still being typecast in the same generic ethnic roles.

Read more: The Man Who Was Rumored to Be Engaged to Elizabeth Taylor but “Blew It”

Her agent once told her that it was actually because she played Anita that a producer would never consider her for any kind of role that was not considered “ethnic.” She made a career-changing decision then. “All the Latina roles in films were so perfunctory,” she explained years later. “And I said, ‘I’m not going to do that stuff anymore with the accents.'” For this reason, Moreno didn’t work in Hollywood for seven years. While she filled this time performing on stage, her return to the big screen wouldn’t come until 1968 when she starred in The Night of the Following Day.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!