Hollywood Icon Rita Moreno Still Steals the Show

At just 80something years young, Rita Moreno remains one of the busiest stars in show business. The publication of her book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” was followed by a starring role in the premier of “Life Without Make-Up,” an original play about her life. She also appears regularly as Fran Drescher’s mother in TVLand’s “Happily Divorced.”

In addition, Moreno frequently travels for concerts and lectures. Such creative diversity has been the hallmark of her nearly 70-year career.

Moreno belongs to an elite group of only eight living performers who have won the grand slam of the entertainment industry’s most prestigious awards: The Oscar, The Emmy, The Tony, and The Grammy.

Her Oscar win came in 1962 as Latina spitfire Anita in the film version of “West Side Story,” for which she also won The Golden Globe. The Tony was for her 1975 comedic triumph as Googie Gomez in Broadway’s “The Ritz.” The Grammy was for her 1972 performance on “The Electric Company Album,” based on the long-running children’s television series. She won not one, but two Emmys—the first for a 1977 variety appearance on “The Muppet Show” and the following year for a dramatic turn on “The Rockford Files.”

Over the decades, she has collected dozens of other show business awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995. A favorite of Chicago audiences and critics, Moreno received that city’s coveted Joseph Jefferson Award in 1968 as Serafina in “The Rose Tatoo” and in 1985 was awarded the prestigious Sara Siddons Award for her hilarious portrayal of Olive Madison in the female version of “The Odd Couple.”

Needless to say, it was a great honor to interview Moreno when she was a keynote speaker at the Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference.

Click here to listen to our podcast interview with Moreno on the Inkandescent Radio Network.

Scroll down to read our Q&A.

Be Inkandescent: Thank you for being here today, Rita. Let’s start off by talking about your new memoir.

Rita Moreno: It’s about my life, from when I was born in Puerto Rico to right now. It’s more a memoir than an autobiography because thing’s aren’t told in chronological order, as they would be in an autobiography. I really wanted to avoid, “Then I said …, then I wrote …, then this happened to me.” I wanted it to be very personal, which I believe it is.

Be Inkandescent: And it’s quite funny.

Rita Moreno: Thank you! That was the goal. It covers a Hollywood that no longer exists—a Hollywood filled with racial bias. But in ways that were subtle, at least to a 17-year-old girl, until I fully got it. It took a long time to get it. And it does have some delicious anecdotes—the Anna Miller story, and I’m just going to say it that way, is really hilarious. There’s also the Jack Nicholson story, when we did a film called “Carnal Knowledge,” which is pretty funny.

Be Inkandescent: There are also some very sad parts.

Rita Moreno: While writing the book, I spent a great deal of time crying. A lot of wounds that I felt were healed turned out to have a very thin scab on them. That was terrific because I exorcised all kinds of things. I forgave my mother, which was very, very important.

It’s not that she did such terrible things, it’s that there were things I just couldn’t get out of my mind. And I think probably the most profound thing I said in the Q&A today at the Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference was: “Don’t hang on to resentments.”

And boy, I have plenty that I can think about, you know, just with the racial bias issue alone. And it’s really good advice that I gave, and I hope people took me seriously when I said that. People live with a lot of anger. All of us. And writing the memoir was a marvelous way to kind of ameliorate some of that, or soften it, or say, “Oh, for God’s sake, get off it! Now look around you, look at your grandchildren. What do you want, you selfish little Puerto Rican?” And the selfish little Puerto Rican answered, “I want everything!”

Be Inkandescent: Last night you addressed a core group of conference attendees and talked about when you were a little girl, how your mom couldn’t say her vowels. That told us a lot about your childhood and your relationship with your mom. Tell that story.

Rita Moreno: My mom had a great battle with vowels. Every fourth Saturday we would change the sheets in the apartment. And she’d say, “Rosita! Today is Saturday, you know what that means? It’s time to change the shits.” And things like, “Going swimming at the ‘bitch.’” And lots of others that were really obscene, that I can’t tell you! Oh, my God, my poor brother. Let me put it this way, my brother was going to Le Cont junior high. You follow my lead? She would say the name of the school and poor Dennis would say, “Mom, why don’t you just say ‘junior high’?” But she wouldn’t because she was so proud of it, “Oh, he goes to ‘blah blah Junior High.” It’s funny coming out of a very, very innocent woman.

Be Inkandescent: Did your upbringing feed your dream of being an actress and a dancer?

Rita Moreno: I knew that I wanted to perform. And I did perform for my grandpa when I was very young. And very soon after I arrived in New York City, a friend of my mother’s, who was a Spanish dancer, saw me bopping around the apartment and said, “You know, I think Rosita has talent, would you let me take her to my dancing teacher?” That was a man named Paco Cancino, who as it turned out, was actress Rita Hayworth’s uncle. Her name originally was Margarita Cancino, and that’s how it started. I mean I was what, 5! A baby!

Be Inkandescent: And then what? How did that process progress?

Rita Moreno: I took more lessons, including ballet. I began to audition for things, I did a lot of radio for a while. Somehow I always ended up being the girl who would say, “But I’m telling you! I saw that Lady in the grotto, and she wore a blue veil!” “Get that child out of here, she’s mad.” [Laughs] We have a Maria hour. I was always playing the little girl who saw visions, and they always thought she was insane. [Laughs]

Be Inkandescent: Was it weird to be a kid and an actress, or was it perfectly natural?

Rita Moreno: To me, it was like waking up in the morning. In Puerto Rico, I was dancing professionally, except I didn’t call it a job at the time. It wasn’t a profession, it was just something I liked to do. And my grandpa just loved to see me, and I was a really cute little girl. If you look at the back cover of the book, there’s a picture I adore of me with a huge bow on my head, holding my skirt way up, wearing a dress that my mother made for me.

I look at myself then and I think, “Isn’t that the cutest little girl!” You know, big brown eyes. I have a baby picture that I adore; I actually kiss it now and then. Such innocence, such purity, oh man, I adore children. They’re pure, they’re pure, and it’s horrifying to see what we do to children. It’s horrifying. It’s abusive. Fernando, my daughter’s name is Fernando Luisa, I say to her all the time and she gets so embarrassed, “You were my last good egg!”

Be Inkandescent: How old were you when you had her?

Rita Moreno: I was 33. And that was considered old! A couple of years later, people started getting pregnant at 37, 38, and 40! That would have been really creepy at the time. But people just started to say, “To hell with it! I’ll get pregnant. I feel fine, I feel healthy,” and it was fine.

Be Inkandescent: Do you have grandchildren?

Rita Moreno: I have two boys who are my air and my light in my life. My daughter is my soul.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about “West Side Story.” That was one of your classic performances and has lived on for generations. How did you get the part?

Rita Moreno: I had already worked with Jerome Robbins on “The King and I,” and for those who don’t know his name, he was a genius choreographer who eventually also co-directed “West Side Story” with Robert Wise. But I auditioned like everybody else; I auditioned for the singing, I auditioned for the dancing, I auditioned for the candy store scene where the boys abused her.

And I’m still auditioning. When I went to see about playing Fran Drescher’s mother, I had to audition. And I hate it, because I’m not good at auditions. But this was funny, and it was a very New York thing, and that came very naturally, because I had many Jewish friends from New York who came either from Brooklyn or the Bronx. So that was an easy audition; none before or since then has been easy.

Be Inkandescent: What was your favorite performance?

Rita Moreno: Well, my favorite performance really wasn’t on film. It was playing Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Boulevard” in London. And one other, in San Francisco, playing Maria Callas in “Master Class.” That was extraordinary.

The characters were written in such a rich way, and the fun of playing Maria Callas, as well as Norma Desmond for that matter, is that you are free to really ham it up. And that can be a trap.

It’s s easy to go too far. You can drag out all those syllables, and fall in love with yourself, you know, and your accent! There are all kinds of acting traps, all kinds, and I really pride myself on pulling back, having the control to do that. That’s a very big part of my technique, you could say, and I see myself overdoing some nights, and I get embarrassed, I really get embarrassed, and I go to the dressing room and say “Don’t do that! It’s shameful!”

Be Inkandescent: What was your favorite film?

Rita Moreno: I had a very tiny part in it, but “Singing in the Rain” was just incredible. I love that movie. And of course “West Side Story,” it gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, it brought me back to dance. At the time that I auditioned for “West Side Story,” I hadn’t danced in about 10 years. I hadn’t moved a muscle. I was about 25. Old enough. And those dances were like being asked to play three sets of tennis, one after the other. The stuff is very difficult. Great, gorgeous.

Be Inkandescent: Were you friends with the cast, did you stay friends with Natalie Wood?

Rita Moreno: Oh, sure. Well, Natalie no, but Natalie was cool. She wasn’t rude, she wasn’t standoffish, but I think she felt uncomfortable. She felt as if—and she was right—that she was out of her element.

Don’t you think so, when you saw the movie? I think the cast was dying to become friendly with her, and she didn’t know enough to invite everybody over to her house one Sunday, you know, “Come on, go to the pool, swim, have some hotdogs and beer, get drunk, whatever.” That’s all she had to do, they were dying to be acknowledged by her. But she just didn’t know any better, truly.

Be Inkandescent: Are you friendly with Fran Drescher?

Rita Moreno: Oh, God, yes. She’s just terrific. I’m waiting to hear if we’re going to be picked up for that, it’s been a very long wait, so I am a little concerned that maybe we won’t be picked up. There’s no business like show business.

Be Inkandescent: And you just got back from a big trip to Budapest where you filmed a movie with Gena Rowlands.

Rita Moreno: I’ve always loved her, and it was an absolute pleasure to be with her. Cheyenne Jackson’s in it, too. It is based on a play called “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” and it’s a play that everybody does, including directors in Budapest! It’s been running there for about 60 years. Isn’t that crazy?

Be Inkandescent: We’re here at the 2013 Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference. The theme and advice to women is “Lean In,” based on Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Why do you think that women don’t lean in?

Rita Moreno: I think it’s because of the way we’re brought up. I don’t think it’s complicated and I don’t think it’s that subtle. Of course as a Latina, inevitably I was brought up to be a nice girl, a good girl, and my mother let me know on no uncertain terms, without in any way meaning to sound cruel, that if I weren’t a little girl, she would take her love away. She didn’t put it that way, but I understood what it meant.

It’s very difficult to get over that. I didn’t have anything like all those wonderful programs that exist nowadays for young people, particularly innercity young people. Who knows what I might have accomplished, if I had been one of those children.

Be Inkandescent: Like what?

Rita Moreno: Like not having to wait for almost 40 years to do “West Side Story.” That’s what I mean. You know, I admit it, I envy Jennifer Lopez, who got in there, and did all that wonderful stuff. You know, good for her, but I am envious of that access. She doesn’t have to talk with an accent. If anything, she talks with kind of a Bronxier, Brooklyn-y accent, and it doesn’t matter, and she’s Latina. And her name is Jennifer Lopez. So it’s very different.

The door is ajar. It’s not wide open, and it’s heavy, and you have to push hard, but it’s ajar. And that I can play Fran Drescher’s Jewish mother from the Bronx, you know, is just fabulous, but it took me until 80 to do this! That’s when I get envious. There are so many things I would have loved to have done, or at least auditioned for. I couldn’t even audition for things, really. “Oh, you mean Rita Moreno? No, she’s Hispanic. She’s Spanish.” So I didn’t have a chance! You really have to make your own way, you have to persevere, and it’s very, very hard to persevere when you feel that you don’t have value, and I really felt that way for too many years.

Be Inkandescent: But you kept on.

Rita Moreno: There was something that drove me, it’s true. Isn’t that interesting? Something in me, I say it in the book. I just knew that I had talent and that some way, somehow, somebody would see it. And it was Jerry Roberts, really, who was maybe the meanest man in the world.

Be Inkandescent: But he saw talent. And clearly, you have it. So what’s next for you?

Rita Moreno: I’m going to go back to doing some concerts and cabaret, which I really love. And I’m hoping that the series comes back, I really do. I had a great time, more than that, it gave me a kind of recognition that you just can’t get anywhere else. Television, it’s astonishing.

It’s amazing how when I would go on talk shows to talk about the book, there was a huge bump up of sales. It’s just astonishing. TV is very, very powerful. You know, I hope to do some more TV, films if I can get them. I’d love to do more films if I can. But you know, Shirley MacLaine has a hard time, so what do you think it’s like for me? Right? Right.

But I can tell you this, I will always be working because I love it. I mean I can see them wheeling me in a gurney, or on roller skates, and having the leading man say, “Can you get that old broad off the stage? I’m gonna kill her!”

Be Inkandescent: What do you hope your legacy will be?

Rita Moreno: That I persevered. I really think that’s what it’s all about. Perseverance. You have to find a way, even when you don’t believe in yourself, to believe in yourself. Don’t even ask me how that’s done, it just happened.

Be Inkandescent: We are very glad you did, and we hope all of our readers and listeners will take your sage advice to heart. To get your copy of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” click here. And be sure to listen to our podcast interview with Moreno on the Inkandescent Radio Network.