The first Latina to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita, the tough girlfriend to the Sharks’ gang leader in “West Side Story”), was also one of the few artists to also win an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award. The Puerto Rican-born actress has been breaking down barriers in Hollywood for more than 50 years, and last year, she concluded a sold-out run of her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup,” in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, she talks about all of it, including her love life in between.
“I got inspired by doing a play about my life in Berkeley where I live,” says Moreno about what made her write her memoir now. “It had so much success with audiences, I figured a book would be better, because I could include a lot more material — that’s how it started.”
She says her love for performing and dancing began at a very young age.
“I started dancing for grandpa in Puerto Rico when I was 3 or 5,” says Moreno. “He’d put on some music — I’m sure it was salsa, and I’d shake my little booty and everyone thought it was adorable. I loved the attention. It’s also another way of being appreciated…through an audience.”
The very graceful actress with a feminine voice and manner, was also born very headstrong. She says she felt an incessant pull to audition for her first play at just 13 and asked her mom to take her.
“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play [“Skydrift”] closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”
She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.
“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”
But the memory that will always bring a smile to her face, she says, is getting an Oscar.
“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”
She says she played back the video of that moment in time, many times, to her two grandsons who are now 14 and 12. She can still recite it by memory.
“‘I don’t believe it…pause…Good Lord, I don’t believe it…pause…I leave you with that,’ That was it!” laughs Moreno. “That sure was poetic, huh? It certainly shows I was very surprised.”
Besides her award-winning career, what it was like moving to New York City, and leaving her brother in Puerto Rico at age 5, Moreno also writes openly about a short fling with singer Elvis Presley and her tumultuous 8-year love affair with actor Marlon Brando — which at one point dragged her low enough to almost commit suicide. Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself, and love.
“Love is a great deal about respecting the person you’re with,” says Moreno, who later had a happy 45-year marriage with Leonard Gordon. “That’s what makes a lasting relationship. Romantic love is all based on fantasy. The people who dream of the handsome prince are in for a big surprise.”
Instead of fantasizing, she says she’s learned it’s more practical to follow your instinct and ask yourself, “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?”
She says that was one of the biggest questions she’s ever asked herself, but she ultimately chose her husband because she felt he offered her “enormous protection.”
“I had too many frauders in my life,” says Moreno. “Also, he a sense of humor — he really made me laugh — that has always been very important. We met through a mutual friend who just felt we were meant for each other.”
She concurs their gut was right. They had a daughter and spent many happy years together until his death in 2010.
Just last night, she says excitedly that Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to her book party at the house of the producer of HBO’s controversial series, “Oz,” from which she won an ALMA Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1998, 1999 and 2002.
“I loved it,” says Moreno about Sotomayor’s book, which she narrated for audio tape. “It’s a wonderful book and she’s a remarkable woman.”
On March 7, there will be a special screening of “West Side Story,” and a book signing of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” at New York’s Cinema Arts Centre.
“It’s the whole business of presenting my life to an audience,” she says. “I hope people will be moved by it…cry at the sad stuff…laugh at the funny stuff…”