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The Little Girl Who Went From Spanish Harlem to Hollywood fame; the Amazing Story of... Rita Moreno

Legendary star Rita Moreno talks about her journey to fame.


Published:

Michael Lamonica

 At 79, Rita Moreno is still very much in the acting game. On September 2, she stars at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in what could be her most significant show ever: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is the story of her life, written by Berkeley Rep’s acclaimed artistic director, Tony Taccone. When she sat down for an interview with Diablo about Life Without Makeup at her spectacular home in the Berkeley hills, Moreno had just returned from a Hollywood gala at the American Film Institute, where she honored her former Electric Company costar Morgan Freeman. The next day, she would fly to New York to promote her new sitcom, Happily Divorced, which she has been filming in Los Angeles over the summer.

“I go back to my apartment after filming Happily Divorced all week to study Life Without Makeup on the weekend,” says Moreno, laughing. “But I keep reading Life Without Makeup using the Jewish New York accent I use for Happily Divorced. I’m sure I’ll straighten that out by September.”

Life Without Makeup begins with Moreno, at age five, taking a steamer ship with her single mother from Puerto Rico to New York. Moreno dreamed of making it big on stage and screen at a time when Hollywood essentially ignored anyone who wasn’t white.

“When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Lana Turner,” says Moreno. “I was naive, but I really did go to Hollywood with that mind-set.”

Life Without Makeup is packed with songs (Moreno will be joined onstage by a live band and dancers) and plenty of humor, but audiences should not expect a dinner theater trip down memory lane. From the project’s beginning, Moreno and Taccone wanted to reveal the warts-and-all truth of Moreno’s life, without shying away from the kind of humiliations the groundbreaking Hispanic actor endured in the 1950s and ’60s. Moreno was often cast as a generic foreigner, as in the 1958 Father Knows Best episode in which she played “Chanthini,” a foreign exchange student from India. Even after she won an Academy Award for her knockout performance as “Anita” in West Side Story, Hollywood branded Moreno as a “Latina spitfire” and simply stopped calling for most of the 1960s.

The show promises to be a tour de force for Moreno, one of the first performers to win all four major awards—an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy—as well as the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And just as Moreno’s body of work demonstrates an incredible range of material, from sunny musicals and children’s shows (Singin’ in the Rain, The Muppet Show) to pitch-black drama (Carnal Knowledge, HBO’s Oz), her personal life has been punctuated by both triumphs and tragedy. Following her breakup with Marlon Brando, Moreno attempted suicide by overdosing on pills in the actor’s New York apartment building. Life Without Makeup will not shy away from her lowest moments.

“First and foremost, Rita is an actor. She is willing to explore the dark places,” says Taccone. “She wants to go there, to challenge herself and the audience.”

THE PERFECT PROJECT

When Moreno and her late husband, Leonard Gordon, moved to Berkeley in the mid-1990s to be closer to their daughter, Fernanda, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the legendary performer and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Taccone cast Moreno in wildly successful productions of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 2004 and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 2006.

As they collaborated, Taccone saw an opportunity for Moreno to tell her life story. Eventually, Taccone realized that he should be the one to adapt Moreno’s material.

“It was my predisposition to understand the world of this play. My mother is Puerto Rican, just three years older than Rita, and she grew up in the same Spanish Harlem neighborhoods that Rita grew up in,” says Taccone. “I told Rita, ‘You need to do this.’ ”

Moreno agreed to put her story in Taccone’s hands, concurring that the show would not be manipulative or melodramatic. “Tony and I agreed that the show should not ‘work’ the audience for emotion,” she says. “The stories should stand on their own: If the audience wants to cry, that should be a pure reaction, not because we are needling them to react.”

Taccone and his assistant sat and interviewed Moreno for hours, letting her tell the amazing tales of her life without worrying about how they would whittle the story into a two-act play. The approach, Moreno found, was effective both as a creative process and as psychological therapy.

“The process was very interesting,” says Moreno. “A lot of things came out that were buried way down deep inside me. I realized that there was a part of me that has never evolved from that little Puerto Rican girl looking out the window of a tiny New York City apartment.”

Moreno says she also realized that she still had issues with her mother, who passed away in the late ’90s. Moreno’s mother, Rosa María, always had a difficult time relating to her movie-star daughter.

“Here was a woman who went to New York to find a better life for me, took a job in a sweatshop, and worked 17 hours a day to make ends meet, then came back to Puerto Rico to bring me to the United States.” Moreno says. “She gave me a wonderful life, but she sometimes failed in the ‘I’m there for you’ department. As we were writing, I came to the realization that, although I loved my mother very much … I didn’t really like her.”

Moreno says that the strained relationship made her try harder as a parent. Moreno’s only daughter, Fernanda Fisher, lives with her husband and two sons in Lafayette. Moreno describes Fisher, a fine-jewelry designer, as “my very heartbeat.”

As Life Without Makeup came closer to production, Moreno had to face some unexpected life twists that could have shut down the show. Gordon, her husband of 46 years, passed away in June 2010. Then, in October, Moreno underwent knee-replacement surgery. The surgeon prescribed the 105-pound Moreno a painkiller regimen of Oxycontin and Percocet for her rehabilitation, without warning Moreno about possible side effects. The narcotics did not agree with Moreno, who quickly lost 12 pounds and found herself overwhelmed with depression.

“I couldn’t stop crying. Day and night, I was weeping,” says Moreno. “My daughter said, ‘I’m taking you to another doctor.’ And she did. The doctor said, ‘Get off those drugs, now.’ Within a week or so, I was back to normal.”

BROADWAY BOUND?

Since 2005, Berkeley Rep has seen six of its productions, including Green Day’s American Idiot and Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, go from the East Bay to successful runs on Broadway. Despite this remarkable streak, Taccone is cautious (or superstitious) about predicting Life Without Makeup’s future after its Berkeley Rep run.

“It makes sense for Rita to return to Broadway, but you can’t predict that market,” says Taccone. “I’m focused on the show working at Berkeley Rep, not just for our core audience; I am hopeful the show will be good enough to have a cross-generational appeal.”

Moreno, on the other hand, lets her eyes twinkle at the thought of her autobiographical show taking her back to the Great White Way—where she first performed at age 13 and where she won the Tony for her classic character “Googie Gomez” in the smash musical comedy The Ritz.

“Of course I’d love to take the show to Broadway: That’s been my hope all along,” she says, her dark brown eyes beaming. “But no matter what happens, I’m simply one of the luckiest 79-year-old women in the world."

Life of Rita

1931 • Rosita Dolores Alverío is born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on December 11.
1937 • Moves to Spanish Harlem, New York, and takes the name Moreno from her stepfather.
1945 • Appears on Broadway for the first time in the musical Skydrift.
1950 • Makes feature film debut in So Young, So Bad.
1952 • Appears in the Hollywood classic Singin’ in the Rain.
1962 • Wins an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story.
1972 • Wins a Grammy for The Electric Company album.
1975 • Wins a Tony Award for best featured actress in The Ritz.
1977 • Wins an Emmy Award for an appearance on The Muppet Show.
1978 • Wins an Emmy for her role on The Rockford Files.
2004 • Is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.
2009 • Is awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama.
 

 

 

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs September 2–October 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, berkeleyrep.org.

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