You could hardly design a better Hollywood success story than that of powerhouse Rita Moreno: Born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico, she arrived in New York when she was 5 years old. Over the years, she became a talented dancer and ended up in Hollywood, making her mark in musicals like Singin' in the Rain and The King and I before winning an Oscar for her unforgettable turn as Anita in West Side Story.
Moreno is one of a handful of performers to have won all of the prestigious show business awards; aside from an Oscar and a Golden Globe, she has also won a Tony, a couple of Emmys and a Grammy.
And now, at 81, she's telling the story of her remarkable life and career in Rita Moreno, a new memoir. She joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the meeting that started it all, the Oscar award she never saw coming and the crush Jack Nicholson once had on her.
On going with her mother to the meeting that launched her career
"We were insanely excited. And first of all, we didn't know what a Waldorf-Astoria was, so we asked around — I mean, you know, people who live in ghettos very often don't get out of them, especially at that time. We went to the hotel and my mother goes to the counter and says to the concierge, or whomever it was, 'We have to see Mr. Louis B. Mayer at the penthouse.' And the [concierge] said, well, you know, 'Take the elevator and go up to the penthouse.' So we get to the elevator and there's no word there that says 'penthouse' so we leave the elevator again, we go back to the lady and say, 'I don't see no penthouse.' And she said, 'Oh, yes, of course. It's PH.'
"So we went back in the elevator, sure enough, we hit the buttons PH and the elevator doors opened up into the suite. I was trying very, very hard at that time to look like my idol, because I had no role models. My idol at the time was Elizabeth Taylor, so I had on the waist cincher, and we boosted my bosom a little bit, and I had the hair just right, the eyebrows, because my eyebrows were a lot thicker then, and interestingly enough within minutes he looked at me and he said, 'Wow! She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!' And that was the beginning of my new life, and my involvement with enchantment."
On Gene Kelly's famous dance scene in Singin' in the Rain, and her early studio experiences
"He had a 103 fever when he was doing that. He was sick as a dog. And the worst part of this is that the set was really outside. ... I can't imagine how he didn't end up, really, with pneumonia.
"But I have to tell you that I visited the set every single day. I did maybe, oh, a week and a half's worth of work on that show. But I visited all the sets every single day. Well, I didn't have that much to do. So I would get all dressed up every morning and go to the studio, go through those famous gates where Jack Nicholson once told me he used to wait for me. He didn't know who I was, but he said, 'You were sooo sexy' ... you know, with that leer of his. And he said, 'You wore these very tight white dresses and you were always very tanned, and I would wait for you.' And he said, 'You'd give me heart attacks.' [Laughs] I kind of liked hearing that."
On playing ethnic roles
[LANGUAGE ADVISORY: The following quote contains language some might find offensive.]
"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. And I began to feel more and more and more diminished. I was already very unsure of myself anyway, because when I was a very young girl in New York City I ran into an awful lot of racial bias, and I got called some pretty nasty names, like 'spic' and — all the words you heard in West Side Story came directly from the streets — 'garlic mouth,' 'pierced ear.' So by the time I was doing those kind of roles — for a living, practically, in Hollywood — I was beginning to feel pretty bad about myself."
On playing Anita in West Side Story
"You know, the acting part — without trying to sound like I'm showing off — was just with my eyes closed. I knew this girl! That was part of my life, part of my experience. I didn't have to say to myself, 'Well, let's see, what's the motivation here?' You kidding? I know the motivation! I've been Anita, except I wasn't a gang member, of course, but I know this girl inside out. That was the easiest part of the auditions. The dancing was absolutely frightening because I hadn't danced in about 10, 12 years at the time, so I loved doing it and I was thrilled to get the part, and I worked my booty off."
On winning an Oscar for her performance in West Side Story
"Unbelievable. I just couldn't believe that that was happening to me. Do I remember the moment? Does a bear poop in the woods? (Notice how I censored myself so nicely, so gracefully?)
"But I was sure that Judy Garland would probably win, because she was up for Judgment [at] Nuremburg. It was a straight role, not a musical. And I was so amazed and so surprised. Never even dreamed of doing a just-in-case little speech — 'and I want to thank Robert Wise and Jerry Robbins' — nothing! I didn't even work on anything like that, so when I got up there I did this memorable nonspeech. I said, 'I don't believe it!' And there's this pause, and then I say, 'Good lord.' And then I'm trying to think of something, and then I finally say, 'I leave you with that!'
"I ran into the wings and I started to cry."
On realizing what her win meant for the Latino community
"Latinos at that time just ... did not have a reason to write fan letters in America. They may have done it in Mexico or Puerto Rico or whatever, but they didn't do it in America, so I had very little contact with the Hispanic community. I had no idea.
"And then one day many years later, Liz Torres, that wonderful comedienne, told me this story: She was living in Harlem at the time, Spanish Harlem, and it was a very hot night, Oscar night, and all the windows were open, and she said, 'And you know what the ghetto is like — it's noisy, people are yelling at each other, people are dropping bottles down the windows into the yard, and it's just a very noisy place, music is playing,' she said. But that night the Oscars were on ... when Rock Hudson began to announce the names of the nominees for best [supporting] actress, she said the place went dead quiet. And she said when my name was announced the place went up in smoke. There was screaming and yelling and hugging and jumping up and down and people yelling out the windows, 'She did it! She did it!' in Spanish and in English.
"You know, a friend of mine said to me, she said, 'You know what they were really saying? We did it. We did it.' And I tell you what, she told me that story the first time and I just started to cry. Because it really put me back in touch with my people, and I had a people. I had a people who knew all about me, I just didn't know about them."
On why she wrote her memoir and what she learned in writing it
"Somebody said it the other day, and I think it's so on the money — they said '[Your memoir is] really not so much a career book as it is a book of your life, with a career around it.' And I think that's absolutely true. I felt I had a lot of important things to say about the film industry at the time, about how women were treated at the time, how my marriage became quite unhappy after about 10, 12 years and I stuck it out for 46.
"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."
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