I want to take a moment to mark the 77th birthday of that Puerto Rican firebrand Rosita Dolores Alverío, better known as Rita Moreno, one of the very few people on the planet ever to win all four major awards: an Oscar, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy. I’ve loved Moreno ever since I heard her scream “HEY, YOU GUYS!” every day on “The Electric Company” in the 1970s. But her biggest claim to fame, and one of the few times she played an actual Puerto Rican in a film, was her dazzling performance in 1961’s “West Side Story” for which she won the Oscar. Moreno may have been the only Puerto Rican among the Puerto Rican Sharks. Her boyfriend Bernardo was played by Greek-American George Chakiris (who I saw recently at Cyd Charisse’s funeral) and, of course, Maria was played by Natalie Wood who is about as Puerto Rican as I am.
I just listened to a fascinating interview with Moreno and I like her even more than before I heard her speak so candidly about her career. The most powerful scene in “West Side Story” and the one that clearly won Rita the Academy Award is when she is trying to bring Tony a message from Maria but is attacked and nearly raped by the rest of the Jets. Moreno broke down in tears during the filming of the scene because of her own childhood experiences of sexual abuse. The actors immediately stopped what they were doing and tried to comfort the actress. Director Robert Wise explained that the audience would be horrified by the ugly act against Anita and Moreno gamely completed the scene. Here's a brief look at Rita Moreno at her best:
In the two-hour interview (you can find it on YouTube—I wish every actor from the Golden Age would be interviewed in such depth), Moreno talks about her first gig as a kid when she moved to New York from Puerto Rico. At the age of 11, she got a job dubbing the voices of child actors for the Spanish language versions of big studio films. This included being the Spanish Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the voice for Peggy Ann Garner in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and many other starring juvenile roles. In 1949, while rehearsing for a show that never opened, Moreno was discovered by an MGM talent scout and was sent up to meet Louis B. Mayer at the Waldorf-Astoria penthouse just before Christmas. Mayer liked what he saw and signed her to a seven-year contract. As the New York Times reported, “Superior Judge Clarence M. Hanson played a somewhat formal and august Santa Claus as he placed the Christmas seal of approval on Rita Moreno’s present. The gift was a seven-year motion picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Judge Hanson, as he okayed the contract which begins at $200 a week and rises to $1500 by options as seven years pass by, ordered the vivacious 18-year-old girl to invest 10% in government savings bonds.”
At MGM, Rita played a bunch of sultry and exotic “ethnic” roles in B-list musicals. But she soon had the amazing good luck to be chosen by Gene Kelly for a non-Hispanic featured role in “Singing in the Rain.” Moreno’s character, flapper Zelda Zanders, made a strong impression in the film but MGM didn’t know what to do with her after that and dropped her. Rita was devastated.
Moreno made lots of lousy films for other studios, again playing vixens of various ethnic backgrounds. She said that there could have been a Rita Moreno box for every role she had during that time period. The box would contain dark foundation make-up (nothing like her actual skin tone), bright red lipstick, large gold hoop earings, and a wig. She also appeared many times on TV in the 1950s, always playing heavily-accented senoritas or other exotic beauties like an East Indian exchange student (on “Father Knows Best” no less!). Moreno got another lucky break when she was cast as the Siamese slave Tuptim in “The King and I.” She said that the heavy Siamese headdress she had to wear gave her headaches that lasted for weeks. Five years later she got the part of Anita in “West Side Story” and her career was made. Or was it?
Moreno was often presented in the press as the same kind of sizzling spitfire she played in the movies. Her life somewhat played into that image. She had a tempestuous 12-year relationship with Marlon Brando and was often seen with the actor in passionate embraces or fights. A bizarre story from the mid-1950s placed her in the Laurel Canyon home of the heir to the Hormel meat-packing fortune when narcotics detectives burst in to arrest him for drug trafficking. Moreno thought it was a gag set up by Hormel, especially after the officers introduced themselves as Detectives O’Grady and O’Connor, and she got in trouble for punching one of the cops. The actress remained frustrated with her career and in 1962 took a five-year break from Hollywood. Her Oscar had turned into a symbol of her frustration. “I hung around here for a year after that, and all they offered me was more Latin spitfire roles, which was mostly what I’d had before ‘West Side Story.’ You remember. I was always the girl with the flaring nostrils and those fucking sandals,” Rita recalled. It was true. In one week Rita appeared on TV as spitfire Lola Montez in a “Tales of Wells Fargo” episode, as a “fiery half-breed” in a show called “Trackdown,” and as what a press agent referred to as a “Mexican hot tamale” in an episode of “Zane Gray Theatre.” ¡Ay, carumba!
In 1965, Moreno married a nice Jewish doctor from New York named Lenny Gordon and two years later they had a daughter named Fernanda Luisa. As I said, Rita spent much of the 1970s on “The Electric Company” with Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and a cast member I’ve mentioned several times, Judy Graubart, the granddaughter of Judah Leib Graubart who was the Chief Rabbi from my family’s shtetl in Poland (and followed my great-grandparents to Toronto). I hear a new version of “The Electric Company” is in the planning stages and I only hope it’s as innovative and impressive as the first one was. Here’s Moreno bellowing her famous line:
I met Rita Moreno once in the early 1980s when she appeared in our friend Sam Bobrick’s play, “Wally’s Café,” co-starring James Coco and Sally Struthers. Moreno has had a solid career for over 50 years. As she got older, she must have been relieved that she was no longer typecast as the Latina spitfire. I liked her in Alan Alda’s film “The Four Seasons” and thought she was perfect as Belle Abromowitz, the Jewish wife of Alan Arkin in “The Slums of Beverly Hills.” She was excellent as the atypical nun Sister Peter Marie on the gritty HBO series “Oz” and is still one of the hardest working dames in theatre, film, and television.
Happy Birthday, Rita!