Rita Moreno pops up on my computer screen in a bright red hat, huge pendant necklace and tortoiseshell glasses. “Well, here I am in my full glory,” she says from her home in Berkeley, California. And glorious she sure is. Moreno is a couple of weeks short of her 90th birthday, but look at her and you would knock off 20 years. Listen to her and you would knock off another 50.
Can I wish you an advance happy birthday, I ask. “Yes, you can. Isn’t it exciting?” Moreno is one of the acting greats. But she could have been so much greater. She is one of only six women to have bagged the Egot (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), alongside Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg and Liza Minnelli. Yet she has spent much of her career battling typecasting or simply not being cast at all.
Still, her 80s have been golden years. She has been working regularly in TV – notably as the fabulously flirtatious grandmother in the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time. Meanwhile, December marks two huge events (apart from the big day). Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a brilliant warts-and-all documentary about her, is released in the UK on 6 December. It is a testament to her remarkable life and arresting honesty – and the inglorious history of sexual abuse and racism in the film industry.
A few days later, she features in one of the cinema events of the year – Steven Spielberg’s remake of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic West Side Story, released 60 years after Moreno mesmerised audiences as Anita, the girlfriend of the gang leader Bernardo. This time, she plays a character specially created for her by the film’s scriptwriter, Tony Kushner – Valentina is the widow of Doc, who ran the sweet shop in the original.
Moreno was born in Puerto Rico to a seamstress and a farmer. When she was four, her mother took her to the US in search of a better life, leaving behind Rita’s father (whom she saw again only once) and brother. They settled in Manhattan. From her earliest days, she remembers being called a “spic”. Dancing was her salvation. At six, she made her professional debut at Greenwich theatre. She dropped out of school at 15 and by 16 was the family’s breadwinner. In 1950, at 18, she signed to MGM; a year later, she moved to 20th Century Fox.
Moreno had a brutal introduction to showbusiness. As a teenager, she was raped by her agent. The shameful thing, she says, is that she kept him on because she thought he was the only person in the industry looking out for her. Moreno met him recently for the first time in 70 years. “When I saw who it was, I went white. I froze. He said: ‘My wife would like to meet you; would you have lunch with us?’” For some reason, she said yes. “I was examining every inch of his face and his soul and, when his wife went to the bathroom, he came back to the day he raped me and said: ‘You know, I always wished I had made you pregnant.’ She repeats his words, still shocked. “I was so horrified that all I was able to say was: ‘You’re a piece of work,’ and I got up and left.”
Soon after being raped, she was introduced to the notorious sexual predator Harry Cohn, the co-founder of Columbia Pictures, at a party. “I had just met the man and he said, with his wife in the room, by the way: ‘You better watch out – I’d like to fuck you.’ That may have been the third time I’d heard that word in my life, and I stood there and giggled. I didn’t know what to say. But I was horrified.” If Cohn was alive today, does she think he would be in jail for sex offences? “Yes, I think Harvey Weinstein would have had company. He had a dreadful reputation.”
Then there was Buddy Adler, who ran 20th Century Fox. “He found my phone number and started to call me all the time. It turned into a stalking situation.” Did she realise beforehand what went on in Hollywood? “I had no idea.”
Nor did she have any idea about the roles she would end up playing. “Illiterate, immoral characters – men’s little island girls,” Moreno says. Her skin would be darkened; she would be told to speak lines such as: “Why you no love me no more? Why you like white girl?” in an “exotic” accent. She found it humiliating. In 1952, she got a cameo in Singin’ in the Rain as the silent movie star Zelda Zanders. Moreno hoped this would be her escape, but she was soon back playing dusky maidens.
In 1953, at 21, Moreno began a tumultuous on-off eight-year relationship with Marlon Brando, regarded by many at the time as the most desirable man in the world. She was obsessed with him and has compared him to cocaine. “He had a gorgeous intelligence. He was the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life. He was not only famous, he was the king of sexy actors.” Was he a good lover? “Oh yes! That part of it was incredible. That’s all I’ll say. No other details.” Her best lover ever? “Ever!”
But he was also monstrous. Moreno thought he couldn’t love anybody else because he loved himself so much. When she became pregnant, he made her have an abortion. During the course of their relationship, he had numerous affairs and married twice. He seduced everyone he met, she says – even his psychiatrist.
She tried to get her revenge by dating 25-year-old Elvis Presley. “I was still seeing Marlon. I was trying to make him jealous after I found some lingerie in his house.” Was Elvis as sexy as Brando? “Not in a million years. He was very sweet, but no.” She says he was shy and bumbling. Their evenings would inevitably conclude with a clumsy fumble on the floor, as a fully trousered Presley gyrated against her while Moreno waited for more. She gave up on him. Meanwhile, Brando was unchanged.
Her self-belief, already low, reached a nadir. Shortly after filming West Side Story in 1961, Moreno tried to kill herself at Brando’s home. She would have succeeded if Brando’s assistant hadn’t found her and rushed her to hospital. “I was told I was crying all the time I was unconscious,” she says. Did she really want to die? “It wasn’t done for drama, that’s for sure. What I really wanted to do was kill the bad Rita who was always getting me in trouble, but it turned out if you’re going to kill the bad Rita, you’re also going to kill the good one.” She chose life and dumped Brando.
West Side Story was huge and Moreno was phenomenal as Anita. Here was a woman ahead of her time in the macho ganglands of New York – sexy and sexual, proud and principled, complex and compromised. It is impossible not to fall in love with her.
Moreno says she fell in love with Anita, too. “I thought: ‘Wow – she’s what I’ve always wanted to be!’” I assumed you were like her, I say. She laughs and insists she was weak and subservient and couldn’t have been more different. But I have seen chatshows from then in which you seem so sure of yourself. “You are perceiving that Rita Moreno I presented to the world. What was I gonna do, say: ‘Really, I’m a weak person’? No, that was the persona. I am now that person, but it took me a very, very long time to become her.”
She won an Oscar for West Side Story and was convinced she had finally cracked the film industry – then she didn’t make another movie for seven years. That is unbelievable, I say; was it your choice? “It was my choice, because I was being offered such crappy stuff. I was only offered gang movies on a way lesser scale and it was like the same fucking battle again. I couldn’t believe it. And it broke my heart. It. Absolutely. Broke. My. Heart. I thought: ‘I’ll wait for something better,’ and something better kept not coming. It was horrific.”
Have things improved for Latino actors? “Latino people are still horribly under-represented. It has changed, but nowhere near as much as for the black community. The black community in films has done an incredible job of getting themselves in the picture and we have a long way to go.”
Why have Latinos struggled so much? “I think part of the reason is because, unlike the black community, we don’t mainly come from America. We come from all kinds of countries and we’ve siloed ourselves rather than supporting each other, as we should have. We still think of ourselves as Argentinian or Puerto Rican or Mexican rather than Hispanic. Until we get over that and become one big wonderful community, we’re still going to have problems.”
Moreno was targeted recently by Latino activists after defending her friend Lin-Manuel Miranda from criticism that he had not cast enough dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the film of his musical In the Heights. “I said: boy did they pick on the wrong person, ’cause this is the guy who wrote a play called Hamilton where most of the cast was black and tan.” Equally, it felt as though they had picked on the wrong woman – after all, Moreno has campaigned for minorities throughout her adult life, marched on Washington in 1963 and stood only a few metres from Martin Luther King when he made his “I have a dream” speech.
But she took on board what her critics said. “I thought their timing sucked and they were strident, but they did have a point.” As a thoroughly modern woman, she apologised on Twitter with grace and humour for failing to acknowledge the need to be “more inclusive of the Afro-Latino community”, concluding: “See, you CAN teach this old dog new tricks.”
Perhaps those who attacked Moreno weren’t fully aware of how closely the issue resonates with her. After West Side Story, and despite the Oscar, she more or less gave up on the movies because her opportunities were so limited. Instead, she focused on theatre, TV, one-woman shows and activism. The breadth and piecemeal nature of her career are reflected in the other awards that make up her Egot – a Tony for playing the talentless singer Googie Gomez in The Ritz, two Emmys for The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files and a Grammy for the children’s TV show The Electric Company.
In 1965, she married Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist. They had one daughter, the actor Fernanda Gordon, and stayed together until he died in 2010. The most moving, and shocking, part of the documentary is when Moreno talks about what a wonderful man Gordon was – then says she should have left him long before he died, because he was so controlling. “I was with him to the very last, including a month in hospital where I slept on a cot and was with him 24/7,” she says now. “It’s what you do when you love and respect somebody.” But she admits that, as soon as he died, she felt liberated.
“I got up, cut a lock of his hair, which I still have – beautiful silver hair – and as I left I stopped at the door and I looked at him. He was so small and slender and white, and I thought: ‘How is it that little wizened person made me so unhappy? Where did he get that power?’ It was a mystery to me.”
When she got home, she asked her assistant, Judy, to pour her a big glass of wine. “I sat on the patio, took in the sun and there was this enormous sense of relief. When I woke up the next morning in bed and turned on the news on the TV, I said to myself: ‘Oh my God, I can do this for the rest of the day if I want to. I can just get up and go to the bathroom and pour myself a cup of tea and get back into bed and stay here.’ I was astonished and I loved every second of it. I revelled in it.”
What had been stopping her doing this beforehand? “It was in my husband’s head and in my head. I’ve always been a newshound, so I had the news on constantly and it drove him crazy. I think it was also a way of having company.
“He didn’t like the raucous side of me and I love that side of me. I think I’m funny as hell and I think I’m cute and I think I’m mischievous. I know I’m mischievous. And that’s the kind of thing he discouraged, and that makes me very sad, because he was missing out on something pretty wonderful about me.” It’s great to hear you talk about yourself, like this, I say. “You know, I think I owe an enormous debt to psychotherapy. Without that, I wouldn’t be the Rita you know and love.” She giggles.
It took her years of therapy to start liking herself, she says. “If you have been traumatised from the time you were a child to believe you were a ‘spic’, that you were a garlic-mouth, that you are not worthy, it takes a long time to get rid of that. That’s why therapy so often takes so long, because you’re trying to get rid of that trash before you can deal with the you that wants to get better. I went into therapy wanting to get better, knowing that in some way I had a sickness. And the sickness was Rita hates Rita.”
Those days are long gone. Nowadays, she can accept how special she is and how much she has meant to so many people. After her relationship with Brando ended, they rebuilt their friendship and remained in touch throughout his life (much to her husband’s chagrin). “There was always this attachment between us till he died. Every now and then, he’d call me and he would say to me: ‘You were the only woman in my life who was able to make that right turn.’” What did he mean? “That I didn’t need him any more. That I found a sense of dignity about myself.”
She stops talking, looks a little distant for a moment, then smiles contentedly. “Oh boy!” she says. “I know now that he did actually love me. And when I realised that, I was so happy. It meant so much to me.” When did she realise? “Oh, way after it was over. Then, if I needed proof, it was in the newspapers that there was only one picture of a woman in his bedroom and that was me.” She is almost right. The New York Post reported that the only piece of movie memorabilia found in Brando’s home after his death was a picture of him in the 1969 film The Night of the Following Day, locked in a passionate embrace with a naked Moreno.
Since her husband’s death, she has done just as she fancies and is getting to be more herself by the day. In the documentary, her daughter mentions the time they were at a fundraiser and no money had been raised, so Moreno offered to cook for four people and flash her breasts for $10,000. She got the $10,000. When asked in 2017 to play the grandmother in One Day at a Time, she agreed on the proviso that they made the character sexual. Why was that so important to her? “Being sexy? Because nobody my age is ever thought of as somebody who has ovaries. You can’t have a baby, but you can still play for sexy.”
She has lived by herself for a decade. It amazes her how many people assume she is lonely. “I love being by myself,” she says. “It’s not hard to be alone. In fact, it’s great, if you like the person you live with.”
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is available on digital download from 6 December. West Side Story is in UK cinemas from 10 December
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is on 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org