Rita Moreno: "I Feel Like This Year's Betty White!"

In this Web-exclusive bonus, the perennially busy legend candidly discusses her new one-woman show, her Hollywood struggles and the 50th anniversary of the movie that made her a star, 'West Side Story.'

by Mary Kate Frank
Photograph: Mike LaMonica

More: Congrats on your hit biographical show, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Why is it called Life Without Makeup?
Rita Moreno: Because it is a real unvarnished look at a life, which has nothing whatever to do with gossip or dropping names. It begins with my arrival in America from Puerto Rico on a ship. It’s about a young girl who comes from another country and finds it’s an unhealthy thing to come from that other country.

We have five musical numbers and some wonderful dancing. I have a brand new left knee. I’m 79 and I’m going to be 80, so I call it “sort-of, kind-of dancing.” I haven’t danced for years and years so I had to get in shape. Let me tell you something, the way I work in this show in terms of putting out physical energy, I am huffing and puffing and getting that heart rate up.

More: I’d love to see you on Dancing with the Stars.
RM: I don’t even know that I could do that! My knee is not terrific.

More: In the show, you talk about some of your great romances, like Marlon Brando.
RM: I talk about two: My husband [the late cardiologist Leonard Gordon] and Marlon. Marlon played a huge, huge part in my life. For good and for ill, but mostly for ill. And because our relationship ended in near tragedy [Moreno tried to take her life in Brando’s home in 1961], it’s not something I can avoid or it wouldn’t be my life.      

More: It must be hard to go back there.
RM: That isn’t hard. What’s hard is some of the stuff about my mom and what’s really hard is the Hollywood stuff, where I was treated so poorly by so many people—that one I have to control myself not to get too teary.

More: At the start of your career, you seemed to be dropped into any ethnic role. What was that time like for you?
RM: It’s something that followed me later. My first film was a musical with Mario Lanza. It was called The Toast of New Orleans and I was playing a little Cajun girl from Louisiana. And then the other movie was Pagan Love Song, where I played a little Polynesian girl. I always thought that my makeup box consisted of very dark pancake makeup and a hoop earring. It was very hard, but those kinds of things can also be turned around and that is what makes you a survivor.

More: Did you think you’d never break away from the typecasting?
RM: I thought of it every two minutes! I spoke better English than most of the young actors because it was my second language and because it was so important to me to communicate, and that's one of the things that was so frustrating. You wait for a job and you wait and you wait and you are jubilant—until you get the script and you see you’re playing a little slave girl from Ethiopia.

I have been a Gypsy, an Arabian girl, an Indian girl, and of course all of these things required an accent, which was just so frustrating and hurtful and damaging. It began to distort my image of myself. I was the utility ethnic and it’s a term we use a lot in the play.

More: And now you play a Jewish mother to Fran Drescher on Happily Divorced.
RM: Oh god, do I love that! I love working with Fran. What a marvelous woman. It’s like a huge, crazy, wacky family on set.

More: Do you think things have improved for Latinos in Hollywood?
RM: I think they’re a whole lot better, a whole lot better. I always quote actor Ricardo Montalban, who said “The door is ajar.” You have to push it open and I still haven’t seen too many roles for Latinos that might make them eligible for the big awards. It’s not complicated at all: you have to be given those kinds of roles.

I’ll tell you what: I think that Jennifer Lopez should have been nominated El Cantante. She was good in that! Since then, she has made other choices, but she was really good in that. She played a character role rather than playing herself. She was very impressive and very nomination-worthy, certainly

First Published October 25, 2011

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