Rita Moreno Talks Diversity in Old Hollywood at AFI Grad Ceremony

Rita Moreno Getty H 2016
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

"I was cast to play every ethnic part the studios needed," said the E.G.O.T.-winning actress during the American Film Institute 2016 commencement ceremony.

Rita Moreno bestowed some hard won wisdom onto the 100-plus graduates of the American Film Institute Conservatory on Wednesday morning at the TCL Chinese theater in Hollywood.

The 84-year-old EGOT (an acronym for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner, along with director Quentin Tarantino, received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from AFI, and during her address spoke about her career on both stage and screen and the adversity she faced as a minority actress in Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s.  

Eva Longoria introduced Moreno as the embodiment of the "American Dream." She added: "Growing up, it was hard to find someone who represented me and my story onscreen and then I saw West Side Story. There was Anita: Latina and proud.”

The entire musical number "America" from 1961's West Side Story, which had its 1961 premiere at the TCL theater, played on the big screen. “I was just loving myself in that!” said Moreno of the performance.

“I was cast to play every ethnic part the studios needed," the actress said, citing parts where she was asked to play Indian, Native American and Arabian characters. "With them came what I had to call the 'Universal Ethnic Accent' because I had no idea what an Indian princess should sound like."

Moreno then launched into a story about her time filming Robert Webb's Seven Cities of Gold. She recalled filming on a beach, a scene where her character was supposed to be dead in the surf, but the waters were infested with small jellyfish.

She was being continuously stung, when she says her director shouted, "Stop twitching for god's sake, you are supposed to be dead!" When Moreno told the director about the jellyfish in the water, she recalls him replying, "Goddamit, just do as I say."

She concluded her anecdote: "That is a perfect example of the kind of life that many of us, not just myself, led in those days."

AFI is working towards gender and ethnic diversity within the school's student body and faculty. Forty-four percent of the school's current fellows are female and nearly half of the 2016 graduates of the directing program are women. Over one-third of AFI's fellow are international, and 35% of the American Fellows are ethnically diverse.

Moreno said of her newly acquired doctorate: "l never graduated from school. All I can figure is the powers that be are granting me credits for my years of never giving up. The trick is to just live for 84 years and wear them the hell down.”

Fellow honoree Tarantino also did not graduate high school, having only completed the ninth grade. After an introduction by Elvis Mitchell, the director joked: “I guess this is the year that you are giving doctorates to people who have never finished school.”

The Oscar winner told the audience that he had once tried to get into AFI with a movie he says he "literally made on a Sunday on Super 8 and sent it to [AFI] on a Tuesday." Tarantino said he was rightfully not accepted into the conservatory, adding that it also was apt that he was giving his AFI doctorate address from the TCL stage, because he also had applied for a job at the famed theater, which he did not get as well.

Tarantino's advice to the class of 2016: Be a part of the conversation.

"Contribute to the conversation on race, on culture, on America, on the world, on politics," he advised. "Every one of your movies or commercials or TV shows or plays or whatever you are doing should be contributing to the conversation.”

AFI students are already a part of the Hollywood dialogue, with three AFI thesis films sweeping the entire narrative category at the last Student Academy Awards.

Tarantino concluded his speech, saying, “This is your time. I have been doing this now for a little over 20 years and I will do it for a little longer, but the next 20 years is for you guys.”