Eighty-five-year-old Rita Moreno, who may be best known for playing Anita in the movie West Side Story, went off script in a truly empowering way last night at the Paley Center's Celebrating Women in Television event in Beverly Hills, CA. The actress opened up about her own experience facing aggressive sexual harassment by the then-head of 20th Century Fox as a young woman in Hollywood. She also suggested her choice to come forward was motivated by the horrific list of sexual harassment and assault accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein, which only continues to grow.
"This is important, and this is why I'm bringing it up, honestly," Moreno — who is one of the few stars to ever win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony — told the crowd. "This is not what I'm supposed to talk about. This is important this week."
Moreno also acknowledged the particular barriers she faced as a Latina trying to make it in the movie industry in the '50s. "I was at 20th Century Fox — you can imagine that this little Latina girl was just out of her mind with pride and happiness, and at one point, I met the fellow who was running the studio," she remembered. "He took one look at me and he just said, 'Oooooh.'"
While many reports say Moreno was referring to Buddy Adler, the head of 20th Century Fox from 1956 to 1960, it seemed more likely from her speech and the timeline she shared that she was referencing his predecessor in the role, Darryl Zanuck.
"So, he found my phone number and he began to call my home . . . I lived with three other girls and he kept asking for me, and asking for me, and asking for me. I just kinda knew this was not the person I wanted to mess around with," she recalled. "And whenever he found me in the commissary, I made it a point to eat with somebody at the table . . . By the way, this guy already had a mistress!"
Moreno addressed the power imbalance between them — and the studio head's abuse of it. "You can imagine that as a Latina kid, it was so important for me to be in movies. I wanted to be a movie star so badly and the man would not leave me alone," she said. "It took a year. He kept calling and calling and calling. Talking to my roommates. And whenever he had the chance to see me alone, he'd really, literally look for me. He'd come and get me and say, 'We have to meet.' And I would say something kind of stupid, like, 'Oh, my goodness!' You know, the kinds of things you say when you're young and untouched, and I was. And finally, after a year, he made this last phone call and said to one of my roommates, 'Just tell her I give up.'"
"Finally, my nightmare was over," Moreno said. "Let me tell you, this week has really put me away. You might think, 'Jesus, you're 85, get over it, woman!' But you don't . . . you never get over something like that. I can't. And you know what I'm referring to, and I just want to say, you know what? I'm still f*ckin' here!"
The audience, made up mostly of women, burst into applause at the conclusion of Moreno's speech. The event, which celebrated women in sports, journalism, music, and acting on the small screen, also featured a tribute to Betty White.