When I was in high school, Rita Moreno was an icon to all of us. In the hugely popular film version of West Side Story, she played the character that we girls most admired. Few of us would want to emulate Natalie Wood’s Maria, who was a little too nice and a little too sad for our tastes. Moreno’s Anita, though – that was a woman! She danced up a storm in those terrific ruffled dresses, sang passionately about her mixed feelings for “America” (we had mixed feelings too), and had the best-looking on-screen boyfriend, bar none. Moreover, you had to love her spunk. No wonder she won the Oscar for best supporting actress of 1961. And no wonder SAG is giving her its 2014 lifetime achievement award.
Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno was the rare member of the West Side Story cast who actually matched the ethnicity of her role. (By contrast, George Chakiris is Greek American, and the late Natalie Wood had Russian roots.) The perfect embodiment of the Latin-American spitfire, Moreno often found herself in roles that reinforced the familiar stereotypes. (For instance, she played Señorita Delores in a 1958 episode of the Red Skelton Show titled “Clem the Bullfighter.”) Which is why I was later surprised to realize she’d also played very different parts, including significant roles in two of Hollywood’s best musicals. In Singin’ in the Rain, she was Zelda Zanders, a cute but thankfully non-ethnic starlet. Four years later, she played Indochinese as the tragic Tuptim in The King and I.
After her Oscar win (followed by an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony award), Moreno never got offered another film role that was worthy of her talents. I remember her making a brief appearance in Carnal Knowledge, and playing the lurid part of a drug-addled stewardess in one of my least favorite movies of all time, The Night of the Following Day. In this turgid 1968 film, a young heiress flying to France is kidnapped by a chauffeur -- the bizarrely blond-haired Marlon Brando -- and taken to a beach house where some ill-assorted thugs do unspeakable things to her and to one another. I will not reveal the twist ending (though I’m not sure why I should be so kind to a film so annoying). Suffice it to say, I was sad to see Moreno in a role thoroughly lacking in dignity.
Her appearance in that film made slightly more sense when I glanced at her eponymous 2013 memoir, which devotes many pages to her tempestuous eight-year affair with Brando. When she met him, at age 22, she fell hard: “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. Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known.” So deeply was she in thrall to Brando that she endured countless infidelities, plus an illegal abortion. She tried dating others (including Elvis!) in a vain attempt to make him jealous. Ultimately, when he abandoned her to marry his Tahitian co-star from Mutiny on the Bounty, she tried suicide. The Night of the Following Day came much later, briefly rekindling a relationship that seemed doomed from the start.
Given that she continues to perform with élan on stage and screen, I guess you can say she’s the ultimate survivor. Sorry, Rita. I’d much rather salute you for your achievements than read about you degrading yourself for someone who never recognized your worth.