Rita Moreno has lived a storied life, from her early years in Puerto Rico to the studios of Hollywood. The 50th Life Achievement honoree sat down with SAG-AFTRA National President Ken Howard to share stories of her decades-long career.
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KEN HOWARD: Rita, I am so glad you are the recipient this year and it’s great to be able to chat with you. I want to go all the way back if I may and just talk a bit about the beginnings for your love for performing.
RITA MORENO: I used to dance for Grandpa [in Puerto Rico]. I was 3, 4, 5 years old and he’d put on a record … and he would say “Rosita bailar!” And I would jump around the room and shake my little bootie. It just seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
KH: You have mentioned the change coming to New York — you left a world of Technicolor and now it was gray and dark.
RM: Oh the contrast was absolutely shocking. My mother … made a decision on her own that she wanted life to be better for her and for me. She took a ship to this country, not speaking a word of English. In a way, my story is really her story. She stayed with an aunt in a ghetto apartment and got a job sewing in a sweatshop. And she did that for a number of months until she had made enough money … to retrieve me. It’s an astonishing story. She could not have been more than 20.
KH: So now you’re a young girl in New York — would it be fair to say the dancing and singing were your outlet?
RM: When I did my first performance, which was in a Greenwich Village nightclub with my dance teacher, and I saw the smiles on people’s faces and heard the applause, I thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
KH: You did some theater as a teenager, which is giving you some experience.
RM: I’m getting some. And I’m working with some wonderful actors. And I’m listening and absorbing as much as I can. It didn’t occur to me to go to an acting class. We had dance class and I sang because I liked to sing and I had a good voice. But acting class never even occurred to me. So whatever I did was instinctive.
KH: When was the first time you went to Hollywood?
RM: I was 17 years old on a contract to MGM Studios, which was the studio of the dreams of any young person who sang and danced because it was the musical studio. Other studios made musicals but none of them usually compared to MGM. MGM had Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire.
KH: And Elizabeth Taylor. You were considered, at the time, to be a Hispanic Elizabeth Taylor.
RM: I made Elizabeth Taylor my role model because there weren’t any Hispanic people [in Hollywood]. There was no one. So I needed to find someone I wanted to emulate and it turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor. And indeed, some of the pictures [of me] kind of resembled her.
KH: You got your SAG card.
RM: I got my SAG card: It was 60 years ago now. I was doing an Army training film. I was an extra on a beach in a bathing suit.
KH: What was your first film under contract?
RM: Under contract was The Toast of New Orleans. That was my first and I was thrilled beyond words. [While making films at MGM] I spent every single day that I wasn’t working on other sound stages. I would go get dressed up, put on some cute little outfit and go to the studio and visit sets … And then to my absolute amazement, Gene Kelly asked me to do a small role in Singin’ in the Rain. He gave me the part of an American girl. And that was the last film I did for MGM. And then I was dropped, which was the end of my life, I thought.
KH: What did you do?
RM: Then followed many tears and heartbreak, [but eventually] I got another contract with 20th Century Fox. There I did a few films. I did The King and I. It was a gorgeous movie.
KH: You’re wonderful in that. Certain performers are timeless when you watch them. You’re like that in that movie and in a lot of things — always very present and very real and just enchanting.
RM: It was a wonderful experience. It was a film where I got to meet an absolute genius, the only genius I’ve ever known, and that’s Jerome Robbins. In fact, I did his only two films, The King and I and West Side Story.
KH: Obviously I wanted to talk about West Side Story. It’s a terrific film. A fan question: The scene in the drugstore, where your character is attacked, to me it had a kind of spontaneity and improvisational quality. There was something very real about it.
RM: It’s a near-rape scene. And that’s the scene where I, Rita, broke down and we had to stop shooting for a while. We had done it over and over and I just could not stop crying. The boys felt just awful. I couldn’t stop. I’d calm down and then I’d start crying again. We called an early lunch because I just went to pieces.
KH: Well it was a great scene and part of the power of it is when your character pulls herself together.
RM: [In a low voice] Don’t you touch me. You know where I got that reading? I said to myself, how would Marlon [Brando] say this? Normally it’s said on stage [screaming] Don’t you touch me! And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to go the other way. I’m telling you, I think that one line is what got me the Oscar.
KH: I can’t wait to hear your version of “and the winner is…”
RM: Oh gosh. When Rock Hudson called my name … I hurried down the aisle because I was way back, and I said to myself, “Don’t run. It’s undignified.” I was absolutely unprepared for winning. I was so sure Judy Garland was going to win for Judgment at Nuremberg. I go up to the stage and deliver one of the worst acceptance speeches ever. I said, “I can’t believe it. Good lord ... I leave you with that.”
Joan Crawford was the co-emcee that year. I run into the wings and into her outstretched arms. I had never met her. There’s a photographer right there. She embraces me and the photographer says, “Can I see Rita’s face?” She’s built like a linebacker and my face is hidden, and she says, “But she’s so upset. She’s so upset.” And I’m mumbling into her chest, “I’m not upset, I’m not upset.” They had to wrest her fingers from me to turn me around for the photo.
I had heard she was famous for writing notes, and sure enough, a week later, I get a note from her on her stationary. “My darling Rita, how incredibly generous it was for you to stop by and talk to me after such an emotional moment in your life.”
KH: I find this part fascinating. You win the Oscar … and then you didn’t do a movie for …
RM: Seven years. What happened is that nothing was offered and then finally a few little dribbles came in to do a couple of gang movies — B-movies. And I decided, I’m out of there, I’ve done this.
KH: Yeah, I’ve been there.
RM: That’s all I was offered. And I said nope, I don’t care if I don’t work another day again, I am not going to play those roles anymore. I didn’t do a film for seven years until Popi with Alan Arkin.
KH: And it takes real courage.
RM: Yes. And again I played a Latina, but I didn’t play a cliché, stereotypical Latina. I played Alan Arkin’s girlfriend, no accent.
KH: You’ve done so much now in films and television. Tell me some roles that that you’ve enjoyed.
RM: I loved working on Oz because you talk about going against type! I remember when I had a dinner with Tom Fontana who produced and wrote it, and he says, “Why don’t you play the nun?” I’m seeing Sally Field at the time, and he said, “No. She is nothing remotely like that … You have to think carefully [about this], because you’re not going to look pretty. You are not going to look youthful.” And I really did some deep thinking … life is going to change for you once you do something like this. And I said “You know what? That’s okay.”
KH: In any way you want, tell me a bit about your relationship with Marlon Brando.
RM: My relationship with Marlon initially was that he was gorgeous. He was the king of sexual gods. Marlon really was charismatic. He was the kind of man who would stop traffic. So what’s a poor little Puerto Rican girl to do for god’s sake?
I fell madly in love with him and he fell madly in love with me, but it turns out he was the king of philanderers and he was not about to be trapped in one relationship with one woman. It took eight years for me to wrest myself loose from that and a suicide attempt to help make that happen. And it wasn’t an attempt, I really meant business.
KH: You two would later work together on The Night of the Following Day [in 1968].
RH: I went to France to make the film with my husband’s full understanding. It was the last time Marlon looked good. It was a fascinating movie. But nobody ever saw it.
KH: For some reason I did and I liked it. You had some great scenes together because you had some knowledge of each other.
RM: There was one scene that took place in that movie … where I’m very angry at him. My character accuses him of being with someone else and slaps him and a fight ensues. Now I really have a thing about violence, even when it’s make believe. I’ll do anything I can not to hit somebody.
But Marlon said “You have to really smack me. You can’t fake it or I’m not going to react the right way.” So we rehearsed it a lot and we improvised most of our dialogue. And we get to the part and I slapped him and something so frightening happened and he looked at me … and I thought, “Oh my god, he is taking in all the pond scum that we had been through together for eight years.” And he hauled off and socked me so hard on the jaw. I went berserk. And then all my pond scum stuff came up. It was crazy. And I attacked him and he got frightened. It’s the realest scene. The director said I’m not cutting a thing and I’m leaving it just the way it is. The next day, I told my husband the dailies were being shown and to go see them because I was too embarrassed. He came back and said, “Wow you two are really terrific actors.” What a mensch, my husband.
KH: What a mensch. And you’re a mensch. What a great storyteller you are. Thank you for being here and congratulations on your award.
RM: Thank you so much.