Rita Moreno: Cover Story

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This Is for You
The Indomitable Oscar-Winning Triple Threat, Rita Moreno, Plays the Rabble-Rouser to Raise Money for Community Causes & Gives Birth to a Promising Campaign
by Dann Dulin

 

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Duane Cramer

Rita Moreno is a trailblazer. The feminine, feisty, sexy, and headstrong entertainer has nabbed an Oscar, Emmy (two of them), Grammy, and Tony—and became the first Latina to be honored with all four. Early next year the Screen Actors Guild will bestow on her their Life Achievement Award. She broke ground by stepping forward early in the AIDS crisis when other celebrities would not. Even before amfAR was established in 1985, Rita appeared at the first Los Angeles AIDS benefit at the Hollywood Bowl.

“I’ve known AIDS forever and forever. I’ve done AIDS benefits…forever,” Rita states pragmatically, having lost so many friends to this disease and now almost desensitized to the pain. “We did a Hollywood Bowl fundraiser—and what a show! My daughter Fernanda, who was sixteen at the time, danced with me. To show you how early this was, the press showed up and exclaimed, ‘Why are you doing this??!’ The implication being that this could be bad publicity. I answered, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’”

Rita continues. “During rehearsal, on the day of the performance, Irving, my conductor, was having problems with the timing of both bands while they played my song, ‘Strike Up The Band,’ which was to coincide with the Bowl fireworks. One was a gay band and the other a lesbian band. Once it was synchronized and they worked it out, Irving said, ‘Okay now. Is everybody straight?’ Everybody started howling and carrying on!” Rita laughs, recalling the memory. “That benefit was just a wonderful, wonderful evening. The audience loved the show. It was the first show I ever did where I just said whatever was on my mind.”

Indeed, Rosita Dolores Alverio (her birth name) has always been outspoken and straightforward in her public life. This devotion to the truth is readily apparent in her autobiography, Rita Moreno: A Memoir, which was released this past spring. At eighty-one, she has many tales to share and freely reveals many of them during our interview today to this eager captive reporter. Rita is an engaging raconteur.

Currently on a book signing tour, Rita has a stopover in Los Angeles and we gather in a banquet room of The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, prior to her photo shoot for A&U. In a couple of weeks she’ll be back in her comfy, cozy Berkeley home, her favorite place to be. Fernanda, her daughter, and two grandsons are just fifteen minutes away.

Rita sports a flowing silky ensemble of Copenhagen blue pants, aqua-colored blouse, and a bright vivid floral vest. Her pixy platinum-grey hair is coiffed and becoming, her skin is peachy youthful, and her face glows. Rita is shapely and stays fit by taking long walks. She could easily pass for a woman half her age.

Friendly and upbeat, she exudes a calm centeredness, which makes me feel as though I’m schmoozing over the back fence with a long-time neighbor. She is so eloquent and so darn disarming, that at this bare banquet table, it’s easy to forget that Rita is an icon, a star of magnitude. And what a résumé!

On the big screen she shined in such immortal films as Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story (Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), The King and I, The Ritz, Summer and Smoke, and Carnal Knowledge. On TV, to name a few, she’s appeared in The Rockford Files (Emmy Award), Father Knows Best, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, Oz, and Ugly Betty. Rita’s jolting comic scream, “Hey you guu-uuysss…!,” at the beginning of the beloved and popular ’70s kids’ television show The Electric Company, (co-starring Morgan Freeman) woke up a generation of tail-end Baby Boomers and early Gen X-ers.

In 2009, Ms. Moreno was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. In 2011, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, she performed Life Without Makeup, an intimate one-woman show recounting her flashy career that combined singing, dancing, and exposing raw personal stories. The scuttlebutt is that it may land on Broadway. Recently, Rita co-starred with Fran Drescher on TV Land’s Happily Divorced, and her newest film, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, will be released next year. Gena Rowlands, Cheyenne Jackson, Jacki Weaver, and Julian Sands co-star.

Of all her many films, The Ritz is Rita’s favorite. If you’re a certain age, how could you not remember the outrageousness and prominence of this film? “I love The Ritz!” she roars, her hands flatly spread and pressed onto the table. “The character [Googie Gomez] was my invention. I love her! She still makes me laugh.” Googie is a third-rate lounge singer with a heavy Puerto Rican accent (Rita is proud of her Puerto Rican heritage). In the film—based on the Broadway play, in which Rita originated the role—Googie horribly performs at a gay bathhouse, botching the song, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” with two scantily clad boy dancers in tow.

“Whenever I perform at AIDS benefits, I do that number with some dancers, and the audience goes bananas! I’ve even thought up more tricks that can go wrong during her performance. She now wears long gloves and a big, blingy cheesy-looking ring,” chortles Rita. “At one point she takes off her gloves and one of them gets stuck on the ring. So for the rest of the number there’s this long opera glove hanging off her ring. Every time she waves her arms, it’s flapping.” She mimes the movement, her arm gliding through the air. “At the end of the song, when the boys lift her up on their shoulders she’s singing, ‘Every-ting cumming up row-ses ford me and ford jew’ and the glove is hanging right in the front of the dancer’s face!” This wacky, hilarious sequence from the film can be found on YouTube.

A hotel waiter enters and brings Rita some hot Earl Grey tea. She thanks him in Spanish and, after he departs, she dabs her brew with a bit of milk and honey.

I inquire about her motivation for volunteering. “Oh, gosh, when it’s something as [far-reaching] as AIDS I want to get involved,” she remarks genuinely, citing Larry Kramer as a role model. “I address Latinos saying, ‘You must stop eating fatty foods because you’re going to get diabetes and diabetes brings on heart problems.’ It’s a public service. It’s caring for the community. It’s called being in service. You can’t have a complete life unless you give some of it to service the community.”

In addition to her work on behalf of the HIV/AIDS community, Rita is committed to such causes as equality, breast cancer, and hunger. After winning the Oscar for West Side Story in the early sixties, she became politicized. During the Civil Rights Movement she joined the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (this year marked its fiftieth anniversary). Before that she demonstrated to “Ban the bomb.” Rita’s inspiration came from her then roommate. “She was a mature woman who was thirty-five compared to my twenty-three. She was very smart, very political, and a lefty. She made me understand that there are other things in this world beside myself and encouraged me to find ways to help people whenever I can.”

Straight away Rita lunges into her fundraising techniques. “I found a brand new way that is pretty fabulous!” she says. “The idea came to me years ago as I was doing an event. I thought, Why don’t I invite some people to my house for dinner and we’ll charge? I think the first time we made about $10,000. That’s a lot of money in one evening, with one event.”

 

Case in point, in May, Rita spoke at an HIP Housing (Human Investment Project, Inc.) fundraiser in San Mateo County. Part of HIP’s mission is to create homes for the disadvantaged and for disabled people. She got up to the mic and said: “I would like to invite whoever wants to come to my house for dinner. I’m going to make drinks and cook dinner but it has to start at $5,000. Although I’ll tell you right now, I’m not accepting $5,000!,” Rita proclaims with forceful determination, reliving the event. “We got it up to $12,000.” She chuckles at her feat. “Then after I stepped away from the mic, somebody from the board came up to me and said, ‘I don’t suppose you’d do another dinner?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not?!’ So I got up on the stage again and this time we got $11,000.” That evening she raised over $25,000 for HIP Housing. And just last month, Rita worked this identical magic to raise funds for yet another AIDS organization, too.

Rita recalls a luncheon that she and her friend, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, attended. The auction started at $4,000, but with her irrepressible approach, she hiked it up to $7,000. “It’s a wonderful way to make bee-hunks of money!” she quips, taking a breath then counters, “…until I lose my mojo.” She dons a low irritated voice, “‘What? Dinner with Rita Moreno again??!’” Then she adds, “If it were Ashton Kutcher, they’d probably make $25,000!”

As the number of HIV infections continue to escalate in the Latino community as well as in the black community, the teen and twenty set, and women, Rita continues to offer her services, questioning the efficacy of the current HIV prevention campaigns. She has many friends who are HIV-positive, and, fortunately, in good health. At times, though, she gets pissed at them. “I get very angry with my friends who still do careless things.” Rita whispers, “I…just…don’t…get…that.” She shoots a blank stare. “And what I say to them is, ‘Obviously I value you more than you do yourself. As far as I’m concerned, you’re doing this to me and to those who love you. You’re not just alone in this for one quick ‘hot-ie’ experience. You may be gone next year! What’s wrong with you?!’” she punctuates empathically. “And they do listen to me. I’m like the Mama.” She ponders a moment, touching her white wristwatch. “I guess it’s an addiction of a kind, like Anthony Weiner. Sometimes I feel terribly sorry for this man. It’s a sickness.

“But what I have to say to my friends may radiate a difference. People always forget about others when they make a reckless move. It’s like when I tried to do away with myself, a hundred years ago. I forgot…,” she sighs, dragging out the word in a sullen tone, “that there were people who would remain behind. Heartbroken. Decimated.” In 1961, after a passionate and volatile eight-year affair with Marlon Brando, Rita swallowed some phenobarbitals in Marlon’s home. As she writes in Rita Moreno: A Memoir, “I threw all the pills down my throat before I could change my mind, drained a glass of water, and said, ‘Well, there. You see? That wasn’t so hard!’ I went to bed to die…I just desperately wanted to finally be at peace.”

At the time, Rita was so focused on her own needs, she failed to realize how her selfish act would affect those she loved. “Later, when I had to face my mother and my brother, Dennis, who was then sixteen, as they were standing there at the foot of the [hospital] bed…” She doesn’t complete the sentence, visibly moved. “My mother was weeping and said, ‘Whhyyy?….Did I do something?’ ‘Did Marlon do something?’” Rita is deep in thought. “And my little brother….that’s the one that still brings tears to my eyes because he just didn’t say anything. He said, ‘Nanny’ (he used to call me Nanny), ‘please don’t do that again.’ He was a baby. How could I abandon him like that?”

The room becomes still. Her heart-gripping story has an affecting impact. Rita’s thoughts are now spinning. She ties it all together. “When people take risks during sex, they’re not only taking a chance with their lives, they’re obviously not thinking about those in their lives who love them.” As Rita speaks, her voice energizes, rising up a notch. “Maybe there needs to be a campaign with mothers….” Without warning, she lets out a gasp and shouts, “HEY! Let me get involved with you on this. I’m a mother; we could do some public service announcements. Why don’t we think about a campaign where mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, anyone who is related to someone who’s HIV-positive, and say…,” she stops, looking at my enthusiastic expression, and goes on. But wait. For a brief, bizarre moment it’s as if I’m staring back directly into the face of the strong-willed Anita, the character she so fiercely portrayed in West Side Story.

“It’s such a great idea!” percolates Rita. “It’s such a different approach. I just thought of it this minute.” She coughs and clears her throat. “The relative can say, ‘Larry, it’s me your mom. I want to tell you something. I love you with all my heart but I’m going to miss you terribly if you keep on doing…blah, blah, blah, blah….Did you think how we would feel without you?’”

We brainstorm and I cheer her on. I feel like one of the Glee gang hanging with Mr. “Schue” to come up with a theme for Regionals, or even Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney planning a show in the barn. “We can do an amazing campaign!” raves Rita, with an encouraging smile. “We can do PSAs on television. That’s where it’s going to have the best effect, especially on popular TV shows that kids watch like The Big Bang Theory. We have to get lots of money so we can saturate the market….” Rita mulls over what she just said. “I can kick it off but we need to get some stars. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a parent or relative, we could get the stars to say, ‘I have a friend who I love dearly…. and this message is for you, Larry.’”

“What can we call it?” I ask. “How about, ‘This Is for You’? We’ll just use that as a working title.”

Rita’s publicist quietly strolls into the room and Rita shares her new inspiration. Still revved, Rita declares, “This campaign appeals to the gut…instantly.” She snaps her fingers, gazes at me with her big beaming brown eyes that radiate exhilaration and concludes, “Let’s do it!”


For more on the photography of Duane Cramer, log on to: www.duanecramer.com.

Dann Dulin interviewed Scott Bakula for the June cover story.