On my computer screen, Rita Moreno appears wearing a bright red hat, a large pendant necklace, and tortoiseshell spectacles. She said from her residence in Berkeley, California, “Well, here I am in my full glory.”
And she is magnificent. Moreno is just a few weeks away from turning 90, yet one glance at her and you’d swear she’s 20 years younger. If you listened to her, you may save another 50 dollars.
I’d want to wish you a happy birthday in advance. “You certainly can.” “Isn’t it thrilling?” you could ask. Moreno is a legend in the acting world.
But she had the potential to be so much more. Along with Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, and Liza Minnelli, she is one of only six women to have won the Egot (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony honors).
Despite this, she has spent most of her career fighting typecasting or going uncast.
Her 80s, however, have been golden years for her. She’s been a regular on television, most recently as the delightfully flirty grandma in Netflix’s One Day at a Time. Meanwhile, the month of December is marked by two major occurrences (apart from the big day).
On December 6th, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a great warts-and-all documentary about her, will be released in the UK. It’s a monument to her incredible life and unflinching honesty – as well as the industry’s dreadful history of sexual assault and prejudice.
A few days later, she stars in one of the year’s most anticipated films, Steven Spielberg’s version of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic West Side Story, which was released 60 years after Moreno wowed audiences as Anita, the gang boss Bernardo’s lover. Valentina, the widow of Doc, who managed the sweet store in the original, is a character developed just for her by the film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner.
Moreno is the son of a seamstress and a farmer from Puerto Rico. Rita’s mother brought her to the United States when she was four years old in hopes of a better life, leaving behind her father (whom she only saw once more) and brother. They made their home in Manhattan. She recalls being nicknamed a “spic” when she was a child.
Her salvation was dancing. She made her professional debut at Greenwich Theatre when she was six years old. She dropped out of school at the age of 15 and became the family’s breadwinner by the age of 16.
She signed with MGM when she was 18 years old in 1950, and then transferred to 20th Century Fox a year later.
Moreno had a harrowing start in show industry. Her agent assaulted her when she was a teenager. She claims the only reason she kept him on was because she believed he was the only one in the business looking out for her.
For the first time in 70 years, Moreno met him lately. “I turned white when I saw who it was.” I went completely still. ‘My wife would want to meet you; would you like to have lunch with us?’ he offered.
She said yes for some reason. “I was analyzing every inch of his face and soul when, while his wife was in the toilet, he reminisced about the day he raped me and remarked, ‘You know, I always hoped I had gotten you pregnant.’
Still stunned, she repeats his statements. “I was so shocked that all I could say was, ‘You’re a piece of work,’ and then I stood up and walked away.”
She was introduced to legendary sexual predator Harry Cohn, the co-founder of Columbia Pictures, at a party shortly after being raped. “I’d just met the man, and he said, ‘You better watch out – I’d like to fuck you,’ with his wife in the room.”
I think that was the third time I’d heard that term in my life, and I laughed out loud. I couldn’t think of anything to say. “However, I was horrified.”
Is she certain that if Cohn were living now, he would be imprisoned for sex offenses? “I believe Harvey Weinstein would have been accompanied. He had a poor track record.”
Then there was Buddy Adler, who was the president of 20th Century Fox at the time. “He discovered my phone number and began calling me on a regular basis.”
It devolved into a case of stalking.” Did she have any prior knowledge of what was going on in Hollywood? “I had no idea,” says the narrator.
She also had no notion what kind of parts she’d be portraying. Moreno describes the characters as “illiterate, immoral characters – men’s little island girls.” Her skin would darken, and she’d be taught to say things like, “Why don’t you love me any more?”
“Why do you like white girls?” he asks, his voice tinged with a “exotic” accent. It was embarrassing for her.
She had a cameo appearance in Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 as silent film actress Zelda Zanders. Moreno believed that this would be the end of her troubles, but she was soon back in the game of dusky maidens.
At the age of 21, Moreno started an on-again, off-again eight-year romance with Marlon Brando, who was considered by many at the time to be the most attractive man on the planet. She was completely enamored with him, comparing him to cocaine.
“He possessed a stunning intelligence.” He was the most amusing guy I’ve ever met. He was not only well-known, but he was also known as the “King of Sexy Actors.”
Was he a loving partner? “Yes!” says the speaker. That was a wonderful part of it. That’s all I have to say about the subject.
There are no additional specifics.” Her greatest lover of all time? “Ever!”
He was, nevertheless, horrible. Because he loved himself so much, Moreno believed he couldn’t love anybody else.
He forced her to get an abortion when she got pregnant. He had a number of indiscretions and married twice throughout their relationship. She claims he charmed everyone he encountered, including his doctor.
She sought to avenge herself by dating Elvis Presley, who was 25 at the time. “I was still seeing Marlon,” says the narrator. I was attempting to make him envious after discovering some intimate apparel in his home.”
Was Elvis as seductive as Marlon Brando? “Not a chance in a million.” He was charming, but no.” He was bashful and fumbling, she claims.
Their nights would always end in an awkward tangle on the floor, with a fully clothed Presley gyrating against her as Moreno waited for more. She had lost hope in him. Meanwhile, Brando remained unaffected.
Her self-esteem, which was already poor, had plummeted to new lows. Moreno attempted suicide at Brando’s house shortly after shooting West Side Story in 1961. If Brando’s aide hadn’t discovered her and hurried her to the hospital, she may have succeeded.
She claims, “I was told I was crying the entire time I was unconscious.” Was it true that she want to die? “It wasn’t done for the sake of drama, for sure.”
What I really wanted to do was kill the terrible Rita who was constantly getting me into problems, but it turned out that if you kill the bad Rita, you had to kill the good Rita as well.” She opted for life over Brando.
West Side Story was a great hit, and Moreno as Anita was amazing. In the masculine ganglands of New York, here was a woman who was ahead of her time – beautiful and sensual, proud and principled, complicated and conflicted. It’s difficult not to be smitten with her.
Moreno claims to have fallen in love with Anita as well. “I was like, ‘Wow, she’s exactly who I’ve always wanted to be!'” I imagined you were similar to her, I explain. She chuckles and maintains she was weak and submissive, despite the fact that she couldn’t have been more unlike.
However, I’ve watched chatshows from back then in which you seem to be so certain of yourself. “You’re picking up on Rita Moreno’s presence.” I made a presentation to the world.
Was I going to say something like, “Really, I’m a weak person”? That wasn’t the persona, however. I am now that person, but it took a long time for me to get there.”
She won an Oscar for West Side Story and thought she’d finally cracked the film business, but then she went seven years without making another picture. That’s incredible, I say; was it your decision?
“I made the decision because the alternatives were so bad.” Only gang movies on a much smaller scale were presented to me, and it was the same fucking struggle all over again. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
And that shattered my heart. It really shattered my heart. ‘I’ll wait for anything better,’ I reasoned, but nothing better appeared. It was a nightmare.”
Has the situation for Latino performers improved? “Latinos continue to be grossly underrepresented.” It has altered, but not quite as much as it has for the African-American community.
The black community in movies has done a fantastic job of establishing itself, but we still have a long way to go.”
Why have Latinos had such a hard time? “I believe part of the reason is that, unlike the black community, we are not predominantly from the United States.” We’re from all over the world, yet instead of supporting one another as we should, we’ve isolated ourselves.
We still identify as Argentinians, Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans rather than Hispanics. We’ll continue to have difficulties until we get past it and become one huge great community.”
After defending her friend Lin-Manuel Miranda against accusations that he had not hired enough dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the film adaptation of his musical In the Heights, Moreno was recently attacked by Latino activists.
“I said, ‘Boy, did they pick the wrong person,’ because this is the guy who wrote Hamilton, a play with a majority of black and tan actors.” It also seemed as though they had targeted the wrong lady; after all, Moreno had spent her whole life advocating for minorities, marched in Washington in 1963, and was just a few feet away from Martin Luther King when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
But she listened to what her opponents had to say. “I thought their timing was off and that they were abrasive, but they had a point.” She apologised for failing to recognise the need to be “more inclusive of the Afro-Latino community” on Twitter with grace and humour, concluding: “See, you CAN teach this old dog new tricks.”
Perhaps people who insulted Moreno didn’t realize how much she cares about the topic. Despite the Oscar, she mostly abandoned the film industry after West Side Story since her possibilities were so restricted. She instead concentrated on theatre, television, one-woman performances, and advocacy.
The other prizes that make up her Egot – a Tony for portraying the talentless singer Googie Gomez in The Ritz, two Emmys for The Muppet Program and The Rockford Files, and a Grammy for the children’s TV show The Electric Company – illustrate the breadth and fragmentary character of her career.
She married cardiologist Leonard Gordon in 1965. They had one daughter, actress Fernanda Gordon, and remained married until his death in 2010.
When Moreno speaks about what a lovely guy Gordon was, then adds she should have left him long before he died because he was so controlling, the documentary is at its most touching and startling. “I was with him until the very end,” she recalls today, “including a month in the hospital where I slept on a cot and was with him 24/7.”
“When you love and respect someone, you do it.” However, she acknowledges that she felt emancipated as soon as he died.
“I got up, cut a lock of his hair, which I still have – beautiful silver hair – and as I was leaving, I came to a halt in front of the door and stared at him.” ‘How could that tiny wise guy make me so unhappy?’ I wondered, since he was so little, slim, and white. ‘How did he gain that kind of power?’ “It was a puzzle to me.”
She requested Judy, her assistant, to pour her a large glass of wine when she arrived home. “I sat on the patio, soaking up the sun, and felt a huge sense of relief.” ‘Oh my God, I can do this for the rest of the day if I want to,’ I thought to myself as I awoke the following morning in bed and switched on the news on the TV.
I can simply get out of bed, go to the restroom, make myself a cup of tea, and return to bed.’ I was blown away, and I relished every moment of it. “I was enthralled by it.”
What had been preventing her from doing this before? “It was in both my husband’s and my heads.” I’ve always been a news junkie, so I had the news on all the time, which drove him insane. It was also, I believe, a means of keeping company.
“He didn’t like my rowdy side, which I like. I believe I’m a riot to be around, that I’m adorable, and that I’m mischievous. I’m quite aware that I’m a rogue.
And that’s the type of stuff he discouraged, which makes me sad because he was losing out on something really great about me.” I think it’s wonderful to hear you speak about yourself like way.
“You know, I think psychotherapy owes me a huge debt.” I wouldn’t be the Rita you know and love if it weren’t for it.” She guffaws.
She claims it took her years of counseling to come to terms with herself. “It takes a long time to get rid of the trauma of believing you were a ‘spic,’ that you were a garlic-mouth, that you were unworthy from the time you were a child.”
That’s why therapy takes so long: you’re trying to get rid of the garbage before you can deal with the you that wants to improve. I went to therapy hoping to get well, knowing that I was ill in some manner.
“And the illness was Rita despises Rita,” says the narrator.
Those days are no longer with us. She can now see how unique she is and how much she has meant to so many others. Her connection with Brando was reestablished when their romance ended, and they kept in contact throughout his life (much to her husband’s dismay).
“Until he died, there was always this bond between us.” He’d contact me every now and again and say things like, ‘You were the only lady in my life who could make that right turn.'”
What did he mean by that? “That I didn’t require his services any longer.” That I discovered a feeling of self-worth.”
She pauses in her speech, gives a faraway glance for a little period, and then grins pleasantly. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaims. “Now I know he really did love me.”
And I was overjoyed when I realized it. It meant a great deal to me.” When did she become aware of it? “Way after it was over,” says the narrator.
Then, if I wanted evidence, there was just one photograph of a lady in his bedroom in the press, and that was me.” She’s nearly correct.
The lone item of movie memorabilia discovered in Brando’s house following his death, according to the New York Post, was a photograph of him in the 1969 film The Night of the Following Day, engaged in a passionate embrace with a nude Moreno.
She has done anything she wants since her husband’s death and is becoming more herself by the day. Her daughter recounts an occasion when they were at a fundraiser and no money was collected, so Moreno offered to cook for four people and flash her breasts for $10,000.
She was awarded $10,000. When she was invited to portray the grandma in One Day at a Time in 2017, she consented on the condition that the role be sexualized. What was the significance of it to her?
“What does it mean to be sexy?” Because no one my age is ever associated with having ovaries. You may not be able to have a child, but you may still engage in sexy behavior.”
She had been living alone for ten years. She is astounded by how many people believe she is lonely. “I enjoy being alone,” she explains. “It’s not difficult to be alone.” In fact, it’s fantastic if you get along with your roommate.”