Tak­ing an ac­tive role

THE RE­MARK­ABLE RITA MORENO

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The re­mark­able Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno, in the midst of a na­tional tour that will bring her one-woman cabaret show to the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Thurs­day, Oct. 27, was in the news ear­lier this month — and not for the first time in her life. The Grammy, Tony, Os­car, and mul­ti­ple Emmy awards win­ner par­tic­i­pated in an event pre­sented by Peo­ple For the Amer­i­can Way, the pro­gres­sive or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­ducer Nor­man Lear (All in the Fam­ily) co-founded. Moreno urged Latino lis­ten­ers to reg­is­ter and vote and, ac­cord­ing to As­so­ci­ated Press ac­counts, she didn’t mince words over why. She was joined by long­time friend Dolores Huerta, a vet­eran ac­tivist who helped es­tab­lish the Na­tional Farm Work­ers As­so­ci­a­tion in the 1960s with César Chávez. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve known Dolores,” Moreno told Pasatiempo from Pitts­burgh, be­fore an ap­pear­ance at the Pitts­burgh Speaker Se­ries. “She’s a re­mark­able per­son who never gives up, who is al­ways there, al­ways present when there’s some­thing im­por­tant to do. A mar­velous per­son.”

Ac­tivism, like act­ing, seems to come nat­u­rally to Moreno. “I’m eighty-four now, and life af­fects me dif­fer­ently. I’m a re­sult of what I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. It was in­evitable that I would some­how come to be politi­cized.” Shortly after win­ning the Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tress Academy Award in 1961 for her role as Anita in the film West Side Story, she joined protests against nu­clear test­ing and its fall­out. She at­tended the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton in a con­tin­gent of Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties that in­cluded Di­a­hann Car­roll, Sammy Davis Jr., and James Gar­ner, who, she re­calls, was guz­zling Pepto-Bis­mol on the flight to D.C. As her 2011 mem­oir doc­u­ments, Moreno’s life has been em­blem­atic of a host of cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal is­sues that have haunted our so­ci­ety through the last sev­eral decades. “I’ve seen a lot,” she said. “I’ve been a vic­tim of bias in the past and I will al­ways live with that, it’s still here. Bias dies very slowly, it moves like mo­lasses. I didn’t think in my life­time things would change all that much, but things here now in my third act — ev­ery­thing is cer­tainly dif­fer­ent. When I started, the door was barely ajar. Now there’s a lot more hope.” “Re­mark­able” is a term that also de­scribes Moreno.

Rita Moreno: A Mem­oir (Cel­e­bra, 2013) re­counts a rich life, full of large and small roles, along with dish on her re­la­tion­ships with Mar­lon Brando, Den­nis Hop­per, and Elvis Pres­ley. Her ca­reer stretches back be­fore her ap­pear­ance in Sin­gin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and con­tin­ues into next year with a star­ring role in writer-pro­ducer Lear’s re­boot of his 1980s sit­com One Day at a Time, which pre­mieres in Jan­uary on Net­flix. The new ver­sion is fo­cused on three gen­er­a­tions of a Cuban-Amer­i­can fam­ily. In be­tween dozens of ear­lier tele­vi­sion and film ap­pear­ances came Moreno’s role in Mike Ni­chols’ ac­claimed film

Car­nal Knowl­edge with Jack Nicholson, a long stint on the PBS chil­dren’s se­ries The Elec­tric Com­pany, and her role as Sis­ter Peter Marie Rei­mondo on the long-run­ning HBO se­ries Oz. “I came from a time when you didn’t do just one thing. You danced, you sang, you acted, you did ev­ery­thing you could do. If you were out of work in one part of your pro­fes­sional life, you’d work some­where else. Today, most ac­tors spe­cial­ize. It’s like get­ting into medicine. Ev­ery­body chooses a spe­cialty.”

At the age of five, Moreno and her mother left her brother be­hind to make a long sea voy­age on a crowded ship from Puerto Rico to New York City. She re­mem­bers the vil­lage she left be­hind in idyl­lic terms, all mu­sic and flow­ers, starkly dif­fer­ent from their new home in the Bronx. She took dance lessons at six and be­gan to do what she calls her “Car­men Mi­randa” act for bar mitz­vahs and the USO. Pushed by her mother, she did theater and ra­dio plays. When pop­u­lar movies played in Span­ish-speak­ing neigh­bor­hoods, she did the Span­ish dub­bing. Signed to MGM by Louis B. Mayer at the age of six­teen, she rose through a se­ries of mi­nor films, por­tray­ing mostly Na­tive Amer­i­cans, Asians, and other ethnic roles.

Moreno first ex­pe­ri­enced the chau­vin­ism of Hol­ly­wood’s stu­dio sys­tem as a young ac­tress, giv­ing her a perspective on the is­sue of women and per­sons of color in today’s en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. “Things cer­tainly are start­ing to change for the bet­ter,” she said. “We see a lot more peo­ple of color but we have a long way to go. My God, imag­ine Asians. They’ve been the in­vis­i­ble ones for years.” De­spite the changes, she thinks there’s a lot of work still to do. “You see a lot more of us work­ing on TV and that’s ter­rific, but what you don’t see is many peo­ple of color play­ing a role re­ally wor­thy of nom­i­na­tion. You can’t get nom­i­nated in a role not wor­thy of nom­i­na­tion. So that’s what has to hap­pen next. We need more black and His­panic and Asian writers. We need the writers to write th­ese roles.” Ageism — the lack of roles for women beyond their twen­ties and thir­ties — is also in her sights. Roles for her be­gan to dry up, she writes, when she turned forty. “That’s the worst bias women face. It’s so im­por­tant that we ad­dress this. I think Grace and

Frankie [the Net­flix se­ries with Lily Tom­lin and Jane Fonda] is the only show right now with lead­ing char­ac­ters of a cer­tain age. It’s the next frontier.”

In her mem­oir, Moreno tells of her 50-year mar­riage to Lenny Gordon, which started off well enough but over time found him try­ing to con­trol ev­ery­thing in her life. “In my case, it was ‘I’ll be the lit­tle girl, you be the daddy.’ That’s so com­mon for women my age and era, par­tic­u­larly His­panic women. We were brought up to believe that the man knows ev­ery­thing and you know noth­ing. Leave ev­ery­thing up to him. I was def­i­nitely af­fected by my up­bring­ing. Then, at some point, I de­cided I would like to be more of an grownup, less taken care of. That’s when the mar­riage was in trou­ble. Of course, bring­ing up that is­sue was one of the rea­sons I wanted to write the book.”

Her cur­rent tour com­bines lec­tures and stage per­for­mances. “The lec­tures are, of course, about is­sues in my life. And I al­ways still do per­sonal sto­ries and anec­dotes in my cabaret show, ty­ing the songs into things that have hap­pened in my life, without try­ing to shoe­horn them in.” Moreno’s lec­tures also carry a strong doses of en­ter­tain­ment, as ev­i­denced in the YouTube video the 2016 com­mence­ment ad­dress she gave at the Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic. She be­gins by quot­ing Maria Callas on the value of art and ends with her own words, de­liv­ered in a rhyth­mic rap rich in rhyme and in­spi­ra­tion. “I’ve been do­ing a lot of col­lege lec­tures in the last few years and I get stand­ing ova­tions. I think the stu­dents end up feel­ing that grow­ing old can be a won­der­ful thing, that wis­dom does come with age. They love it.”

What you don’t see is many peo­ple of color play­ing a role re­ally wor­thy of nom­i­na­tion. So that’s what has to hap­pen next. We need more black and His­panic and Asian writers. We need the writers to write th­ese roles. — Rita Moreno

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