Monday, 4 November 2013

Lovely Rita

"I've always had this image of this strong, sprightly person who is undaunted by anything; on the contrary, I was one of the shyest, most unsure people you ever met in your life. But I have one very specific quality: I'm plucky. I really am. I would say that's a perfect description of my personality. I am able to get up and dust myself off and keep moving forward. I'm very stubborn. I never knew that about myself. But I realize how stubborn I am when I look at all the terrible things that happened to me and how I just get up and keep going."
And thus, one of the all-time legends - and this case a superlative that is appropriate - of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Señorita Rita Moreno (pronounced "More-enn-o", she emphasised) summed herself up at the "In Conversation" event I was fortunate to attend last night at the BFI. Darling "journo-slut" Alex Hopkins had sweet-talked his way to be the only representative of the press to gain entry to the green room at the event, and I was thrilled when he asked me to accompany him.

Miss Moreno certainly is "plucky", as anecdote after anecdote about her long and often difficult life emerged. At 81, the lady is still gorgeous, svelte and sharp as a razor - she definitely looks nowhere near her actual age. Earlier this year she published her long-awaited memoir, and no holds were barred when it came to recalling how she was treated as a young Latino girl with great looks and a lot of talent entering a studio system that was still enmeshed in racial stereotyping.
"I became the house ethnic. And that meant I had to play anything that was not American. So I became this Gypsy girl, or I was a Polynesian girl, or I was an Egyptian girl. And finally I decided that by playing all these roles, I should have some kind of accent, but of course I had no idea what these people sounded like so I made up my own, and I now call it the universal ethnic accent. The funny part of it is that all my ethnic characters that I played all sounded exactly the same!

"It got me roles. And you know, for a while, that was wonderful - I was in the movies. But after a while I began to understand that it was really very demeaning."
Racism was not the only discriminatory attitude she encountered, either. She recounted the awful experience of having to flee a cocktail party where she was treated, by the host and male guests alike, as a "piece of meat" to be groped and subjected to whispered obscenities. She managed to escape by getting a lift home by a truck full of Mexican garden labourers - "the only gentlemen I met that night".

Of other "gentlemen" in her life, from Marlon Brando, with whom she had a six-year affair, to director Peter Glenville, whose film Summer and Smoke was the feature to follow the Q&A interview, and the film's star Lawrence Harvey (whose understanding of Tennessee Williams and the American Deep South were somewhat sketchy), her recollections were similar - none of these people knew how to handle her.

More hilarious and down-to-earth were her anecdotes about the surprisingly potty-mouthed Ann Miller, with whom she had been invited to another Hollywood party as arm candy, and what they discovered as they mischievously traipsed from bathroom to bathroom in the mansion to take a look through all of the host's medicine cabinets.

She spoke about her most famous roles with fondness - "Zelda Zanders" in Singin' in the Rain, "Tuptim" in The King and I and (of course) "Anita" in West Side Story, the part that gave her the most joy and landed her the Oscar (the first ever won by a Puerto Rican woman; she went on to be of the few people ever to win a Grammy, a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy).

After the formal interview the questions were opened to the audience, which was fun - especially when someone asked if she was now retired. "Don't be ridiculous!", she retorted. Audience interaction is evidently her forte, as when she quietly pointed out someone in the audience who had slept right through the whole hour-and-a-half, and the way she thanked people for prompting her when she occasionally got stuck recalling a name or a movie title. She impressed us all.

One reviewer described reading Rita's memoir as like "sitting on the couch and having a face to face conversation". In the green room afterwards, we discovered how true that comment was. Miss Moreno took each question Alex asked her and effortlessly used it a springboard for another of her easy-going and totally charming stories; it just felt like we were invited in to chat with her and the assembled company around the adjacent sofas.

She told us how her award-winning role as "Googie Gomez" in The Ritz was in fact a character she invented as a "party amusement" for friends - the "comedy talentless Latino". It impressed playwright Terrence McNally so much, he wrote the part around her. Her recollections of other roles, other co-stars, other times and lives could have kept us entertained all night, had she not been kept to her schedule by her loyal retinue and ushered out.

Rita Moreno is truly a wonderful lady, a grande dame of stage and screen, with a wealth of stories to tell. I am still reeling from the experience of breathing the same air as, let alone meeting, the woman who was part of this...

...and, not forgetting it is still Tacky Music Monday, this!

Rita Moreno on Wikipedia.


  1. Wonderful! More-enno-o is legend. x

  2. What a great post - and a great pic :)

    1. I am chuffed to bits with the photo (and she signed my copy of "The Ritz"), and still coming down to earth... Jx

  3. My goodness, the life you lead! Too much fun. And if that's 81, I want to know exactly what she's been doing - she looks better than many a 50...

    1. I am 50. Sniff, sniff.

      She does look fabulous, and at least two decades younger then she actually is... Jx

  4. It sounded like a fab evening. The circles my brother mixes in. Oh my! :-)

    1. "Smoke on your pipe and put that in! "

      It was utterly fabulous... Jx


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