Taking an active role
THE REMARKABLE RITA MORENO
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