RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You could hardly imagine a more satisfying American story than that of performer Rita Moreno. She was born in Puerto Rico, and she may have stayed here if her young mother had not decided to put the both of them on a boat bound for New York.
RITA MORENO: It was ferocious. And it took us days to get to the port in New York City. Needless to say, that during the trip everyone was getting sick and everyone was upchucking and the toilets were overflowing. It was pretty horrible.
MARTIN: After a childhood filled with struggle in the Bronx, Rita Moreno's journey to stardom took flight. From the golden age of movies, where she performed alongside Gene Kelly and Mario Lanza, to the height of her movie fame as Anita in "West Side Story," and then the long years of struggle to get parts after that big hit, she's not firmly etched into Hollywood history. Moreno is just one of a handful of performers to have won all of the most prestigious show business awards. Aside from the Oscar and Golden Globe, she's also won a Tony, a couple of Emmys and a Grammy. I spoke with Rita Moreno last week about her new memoir, and she told her us where her movie career really began - in 1949 when, as a young teenager, she was invited to meet MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
MORENO: We were insanely excited. And first of all, we didn't know what a Waldorf-Astoria was. So, we asked around. I mean, you know, people who live in ghettos very often don't get out of them, especially at that time. We went to the hotel and my mother goes to the counter and says to the concierge or whomever it was, we have to see Mr. Louis B. Mayer at the penthouse. And the man said, well, you know, take the elevator and go up to the penthouse. So, we get to the elevator and there's no word there that says penthouse. So, we leave the elevator again and go back to the lady. I don't see no penthouse. And she said, oh, yes, of course. It's P-H.
MARTIN: How are you supposed to know the code?
MORENO: Exactly. So, we went back into the elevator. Sure enough, we hit the buttons P-H, and the elevator doors open up into the suite. And I was trying very, very hard at that time to look at my idol, 'cause I had no role models. My idol at the time was Elizabeth Taylor. So, I had on the waist cincher and we boosted my bosom a little bit and I had the hair just right, the eyebrows - 'cause my eyebrows were a lot thicker then. And interestingly enough, within minutes, he looked at me and he said, wow, she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor. And that was the beginning of my new life and my involvement with enchantment.
MARTIN: You got to work with some amazingly big names at the time. You tell an amazing story in the book about filming "Singing in the Rain" and that kind of seminal scene that we think of - we think of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain. Can you recount that?
MORENO: He had 103 fever when he was doing that. He was sick as a dog. And the worst part of it is that the set was really outside. It was a big, huge black tent and I can't imagine how he didn't end up, really, with pneumonia. But I have to tell you that I visited the set every single day. I did maybe, oh, a week and a half worth of work in that show. But I visited all the sets every single day. Well, I didn't have that much to do, so I would get all dressed up every morning and go to the studio, go through those famous gates where Jack Nicholson once told me he used to wait for me. He didn't know who I was, but he said you were so sexy. You used to wear these very...
MARTIN: He probably said it just like that too.
MORENO: Yeah. Oh, well, you know, with that leer of his. And he said you wore these very tight white dresses and you were always very tanned. And I would wait for you. And he said you give me a heart attack. I kind of liked hearing that.
MARTIN: So, you got roles but you ended up getting a lot of roles that you describe as kind of general ethnic.
MORENO: That's it. I became the house ethnic, and that meant that I had to play anything that was not American. So, I became this gypsy girl or I was a Polynesian girl or I was an Egyptian girl. And finally, I decided that by playing all of these roles I should have some kind of accent. But, of course, I had no idea what these people sounded like, so I made my own. And I now call it the universal ethnic accent. The funny part of it is that all my ethnic characters that I played all sounded exactly the same.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MORENO: (as character) It's not total sickness that make me sad, Mrs. Anna. His love for one I shall never see again.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Oh, poor child.
MORENO: (as character) He is no child who was chosen to bring me here.
For a while, that was wonderful. I was in the movies. But then I began to understand that it was really demeaning and I began to feel more and more and more diminished. I was already very unsure of myself anyway because when I was a very young girl in New York City, I ran into an awful lot of racial bias. And I got called some pretty nasty names, you know, like spic, and all the words you heard on "West Side Story" came directly from the streets - garlic mouth, pierced ear. So, by the time I was doing those kind of roles, I was beginning to feel pretty bad about myself.
MARTIN: The role that many people remember you for is the role of Anita in "West Side Story."
MORENO: Of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WEST SIDE STORY")
MORENO: (as Anita) Will you let me pass?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) She's too dark to pass.
MORENO: (as Anita) Oh, don't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Please don't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Por favor.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) No comprende.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Gracias.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) De nada.
MORENO: (as Anita) I, I hate you, senor.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Now, listen.
MARTIN: You write that when you were doing some of those scenes, that it did feel incredibly real to you.
MORENO: Oh, it did. Well, you know, the acting part, without trying to sound like I'm showing off, was just with my eyes closed. I knew this girl. That was part of my life, part of my experience. I didn't have to say to myself, well, let's see, what's the motivation here? You kidding? I know the motivation. You know, I've been Anita, except I wasn't a gang member, of course. That was the easiest part of the auditions. The dancing was absolutely frightening because I hadn't danced in about 10, 12 years at the time. So, I loved doing it. I was thrilled to get the part. And I worked my booty off.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO")
THE SHARKS: (Singing) Mambo, mambo, oh.
MARTIN: You went on to be nominated for and to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
MORENO: That's right. That's right. Unbelievable. I just couldn't believe that that was happening to me.
MARTIN: Do you remember the moment when they called your name?
MORENO: Do I remember the moment? Does a bear poop in the woods? Notice how I censored myself?
MARTIN: I did, yes. The restraint.
MORENO: So gracefully.
MORENO: I did this memorable non-speech and said I don't believe it. And there's this pause and I say, good Lord. And then I said I'm trying to think of something, and I finally say I leave you with that, and I ran into the...
MARTIN: And then you walked off.
MORENO: No. I ran in the wings. I started to cry.
MARTIN: When did you realize that this was actually not just about you, that your win had reverberated through a larger community?
MORENO: You know, that took quite some time. It's so interesting. Latinos at that time just didn't, simply not culturally, did not have a reason to write fan letters in America. They may have done it in Mexico and Puerto Rico or whatever, but they didn't do that in America. So, I had very little contact with the Hispanic community. I had no idea. And then one day many years later, Liz Torres, that wonderful comedienne, told me this story. She was living in Harlem at the time - Spanish Harlem - and it was a very hot night, Oscar night, and all the windows were open. And she said and you know what the ghetto is like: it's noisy. People are yelling at each other. People are dropping bottles down the windows into the yard, and it's just a very noisy place. Music is playing.
She said but that night, the Oscars were on. And she said that when Rock Hudson began to announce the names of the nominees for Best Featured Actress, she said the place went dead quiet. And she said when my name was announced, the place went up in smoke. They were screaming and yelling and hugging and jumping up and down and yelling out the windows, she did it, she did it, in Spanish and in English. And, you know, a friend of mine said to me you know what they were really saying? We did it. We did it. And I tell you what, she told me that story the first time, I just started to cry. Because it really put me back in touch with my people, and I had a people. I had a people who knew all about me. I just didn't know about them.
MARTIN: Rita Moreno. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Her memoir, self-titled, is out now. Ms. Moreno, thanks so much for talking with us.
MORENO: My pleasure. It was quite fun talking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")
SHARKS: (Singing) I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything's free in America...
BERNARD CHAKIRIS: (as Bernardo) (Singing) For a small fee in America.
MORENO: (as Anita) (Singing) Buying on credit is so nice.
CHAKIRIS: (Singing) One look at us and they charge twice.
SUZIE KAYE: (as Rosalia) (Singing) I have my own washing machine.
GUS TRIKONIS: (as Indio) (Singing) What will have though to keep clean.
MORENO: (Singing) Skyscrapers bloom in America.
KAYE: (Singing) Cadillacs zoom in America.
MARIA HENLEY: (as Teresita) (Singing) Industry boom in America.
SHARKS: (Singing) We'll get a room in America.
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.