In her seven decades in show business, Rita Moreno has accumulated a lot of funny, scandalous, and tragic tales about her experiences both in and out of the spotlight. And the Puerto Rican-born star of the 1961 big-screen musical classic West Side Story crams quite a few of them into her new memoir, Rita Moreno. ”Eighty-one years is a lot of life,” says the actress on a recent snowy visit to New York City from her home in Berkeley, Calif. ”There are some stories I didn’t write about.” Trying to imagine what’s not in the EGOT winner’s book is almost as tantalizing as what is.
Moreno begins with a movie-ready origin story. After a less-than-easy childhood, she landed her first Broadway role at age 13. Three years later, she caught the eye of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who hailed her as the Spanish Elizabeth Taylor. Before long she snagged a breakout role as ”Zip Girl” Zelda Zanders opposite Gene Kelly in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.
In her book, Moreno devotes considerable ink to the bygone days of Hollywood, when she mingled at parties with Paul Newman and James Dean and endured the open flirting of a man she later learned was John F. Kennedy. But she also had to fend off a series of predatory men (at one L.A. party, she escaped the advances of a rich mobster by asking the Mexican gardeners in Spanish to take her home). In addition, she dishes on some of her famous romances, including dates with Dennis Hopper and Elvis Presley as well as her on-again, off-again eight-year affair with Marlon Brando, which led to a terminated pregnancy and, later, a suicide attempt in the early 1960s. She writes of Brando, ”To say that he was a great lover — sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul.”
But even after winning an Oscar for West Side Story — Joan Crawford hugged her backstage, Moreno tells EW: ”She was built like a linebacker! And she was as drunk as a skunk” — Moreno struggled to find roles that weren’t just ethnic typecasting (she recalls being asked to audition for the role of a Mexican madam). ”The door is now ajar at least,” says the actress, ”but that doesn’t mean it’s completely open. I often get asked why no [Latina actress] since me has won an Oscar. The answer is not that complicated: Until you get the kind of role that is Oscar-worthy, it ain’t going to happen. There’s some wonderful Latino actors. That doesn’t mean they get the roles they deserve.”
For Moreno, a dearth of compelling movie roles led to productive work on TV (PBS’ The Electric Company, HBO’s Oz) and the stage (she won a Tony for 1975’s The Ritz). And her interest in work and travel has picked up following the 2010 death of Lenny Gordon, her cardiologist/manager husband of 45 years. She’s a regular on TV Land’s Happily Divorced, and she’s about to start shooting the film Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks with Gena Rowlands. ”Let me say that I’m at the prime of my life,” says Moreno. ”I wake up humming.”