NPR interview: Rita Moreno Acts Out Own Career in ‘Life Without Makeup’

Actress Rita Moreno, 80, now has a solo show about her life as a star of stage and screen called “Life Without Makeup.” In a joint production with KQED San Francisco, correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the performer’s transformation from a “utilitarian ethnic” actress to becoming a “show business animal.” (Listen to the program here: Listen: MP3)

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a portrait of the performer now telling her own story.

Our report is a joint production with KQED San Francisco and told by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: At nearly 80, Rita Moreno is back on stage, getting ready to reprise her life and career in her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup.” She’s rehearsing song-and-dance numbers she made famous decades ago, including her role of Anita in the 1961 film “West Side Story,” for which she won an Academy Award.

And after a roller-coaster career, where she broke cultural and ethnic barriers — not without pain — she shows no signs of slowing down in this production by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

RITA MORENO, actress: My God, I’m a show business animal. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m very proud — proud of the awards that I have earned. And notice I say earned. I — I love meeting movie stars. You know, I just wet my pants when I meet somebody that I just adore.

SPENCER MICHELS: I talked with Moreno in her house high in the Berkeley Hills, where she and her late husband took refuge from the Hollywood scene.

Reminders of her career and of the awards she won are everywhere. It’s a far cry from Puerto Rico, where she was born, or the barrios in the Bronx, where she moved as a child.

RITA MORENO: And I found out soon enough that it wasn’t a good thing to be from another country, which is, in a sense, what this play is really about. It’s about a young child who comes to a different country, doesn’t speak the language, and tries to be someone else for a major part of her life.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, wrote “Life Without Makeup,” after talking with Moreno for several years about her early life.

TONY TACCONE, Berkeley Repertory Theatre: She knows she wants to be a star, and she knows that the biggest stars are Betty Grable and Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor. And so she wants to be them. Like, she literally wants to be them. She doesn’t like her own skin. She doesn’t like her own skin color.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, Taccone says, she changed. She grew assertive as her career progressed and became comfortable with herself. And that’s what attracted him to her story, along with her artistry.

TONY TACCONE: She’s a spitfire. She’s — she will take no prisoners. She will not be held back.

SPENCER MICHELS: Moreno began dancing as a child.

RITA MORENO: I would perform at all kinds of bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings and Catholic weddings as well. I was an equal opportunity little Carmen Miranda.

SPENCER MICHELS: She used her talent to help support her mother, who, she says, wasn’t the ideal parent.

RITA MORENO: She did the best she could. She was very self-involved and self-absorbed. She was a narcissistic young woman. And…

SPENCER MICHELS: She was married five times.

RITA MORENO: Well, married five times doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic. It simply means that you don’t go to bed with somebody unless you marry them. She was a lady from the islands.

SPENCER MICHELS: Moreno was discovered, and landed at MGM, where she was assigned one ethnic role after another. She played Tuptim, an unhappy wife of the king of Siam in “The King and I.”

RITA MORENO: When I went into movies, I did nothing but speak with an accent. It used to just drive me crazy. They were, of course, all the same accent, because I don’t know how an American Indian girl speaks. I played lots of those.

And then I played a lot of little senorita Lolita, conchita Lolita kind of spitfire roles, everything but an American girl. I was the utilitarian ethnic.

SPENCER MICHELS: Were you amused by this or annoyed by it?

RITA MORENO: Hell, no. Oh, God, no. I hated it.

SPENCER MICHELS: What she didn’t hate was the glamour of Hollywood. In “Life Without Makeup,” she is open about her relationships, some of which ended badly.

You had an affair with Marlon Brando, obviously.

RITA MORENO: Well, it was more than an affair. We had a relationship for at least five, six years.

SPENCER MICHELS: And what was that like in terms of — I mean, Marlon Brando…

RITA MORENO: What was it like? It was fabulous, hilarious, tumultuous beyond belief.

SPENCER MICHELS: And, Taccone says, her career was as rocky as her romances.

TONY TACCONE: Yes, she was fired twice from MGM and Fox. Yes, I mean, she — the roller coaster of her life is compelling.

SPENCER MICHELS: It wasn’t until fairly recently that she escaped the purely ethnic roles, working at Berkeley Rep in a sold-out run of Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie,” and in “Master Class,” her Puerto Rican roots off center stage for once.

For Taccone, Moreno’s journey from the barrios to where she is now is historic.

TONY TACCONE: There are very few people throughout history who you can identify as crossover artists. And I think that there are very few people who know in the course of their lifetime that they are actually being swept up by history, and that they are, in fact, making history. And I think Rita’s one of those.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, “West Side Story” remains the film people remember her for, especially her joyous, very funny rendition of “America.”

SPENCER MICHELS: But the tragedy of “West Side Story,” the Puerto Rican and white gangs fatally feuding in New York, struck a personal chord with Moreno as well.

RITA MORENO: I understood this girl Anita very, very well. I certainly understood racial prejudice, because I ran into a lot of it. I got called some really mean names in my life as a child, just for being this cute little Puerto Rican girl.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today, Moreno plays a Jewish mother in “Happily Divorced,” a sitcom that runs on TV Land cable, and she had a recurring role on the PBS children’s series “The Electric Company.”

RITA MORENO: Hey, you guys!

SPENCER MICHELS: Now about to start her ninth decade, Moreno has come a long ways as an actress and as a person. While looking back, she’s still looking ahead,

RITA MORENO: Here I am doing this play, trying desperately to memorize 32 pages of single-spaced type, with nobody on stage to help me. That terrifies me. Being 80? No.

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