BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Rita Moreno — among the most honored women in show business with an Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony, Grammy and two Emmys — has written a memoir, not about her brilliant career but about herself.
“Everyone seems to know about the performer,” says the Puerto Rican-born actress, who signs copies of Rita Moreno: A Memoir ($27, Celebra) Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “The most important part of this particular story is what happened to this immigrant who didn’t know the language and decided to give Hollywood a try.”
When she arrived at MGM about 1950, studio head Louis B. Mayer looked at her hair and eyebrows and declared, “She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”
“I was trying very hard to look like her,” Moreno says. A mistake. “This is the story of an outsider who tried to get inside and went about it entirely the wrong way.”
After a small non-singing role in the film classic Singin’ in the Rain, Moreno found herself cast as all sorts of young ethnic women: Latin, Polynesian, Native American.
“When I realized I wouldn’t do anything but the little sexpot roles with an accent, I decided that’s what I have to do. I hated it,” she says. “I ended up in psychotherapy.”
About 1955, while filming the role of Tuptim, the Burmese slave in The King & I, Moreno met and fell in love with Marlon Brando. “He was doing a film called Désirée, in which he played Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a cheesy movie, but he looked gorgeous.”
Moreno describes Brando as a “sex addict” and says it’s a “fallacy” that he and actor Wally Cox (TV’s Mr. Peepers) were anything but best friends. “Wally was really the most hetero guy I ever met in my life. He was worse than Marlon. He was a serious woman killer.”
Eventually, Moreno couldn’t stand life with or without Brando.
“I tried to do away with myself,” Moreno says. “I know that I couldn’t bear the pain of being with him anymore. I was addicted to him. I was obsessed with him. Obsession dies hard. . . . I felt I had to get rid of this awful pain. One of the times I went back to him, yet again, when he went to work, I just went to the bathroom and took the pills.”
Brando’s secretary found her passed out in his bed and helped save her life. “That’s the story, morning glory. And here I am at 81.”
Moreno’s close call changed her life. In 1965, she married cardiologist Leonard Cohen, and they had a daughter, Fernanda.
She and Brando reunited in 1968 to make a film, The Night of the Following Day. By that time, she laughed during their love scenes. “You look at each other in a really meaningful way, we’d start to kiss, we’d look like it was smoldering and I just went ... “ Moreno blows a raspberry.
Moreno later appeared on PBS’ The Electric Company and on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz. She won a 1975 Tony as stereotypic Puerto Rican entertainer Googie Gomez, a character she helped to create.
“It was my way of thumbing my nose at all those roles I had been doing,” she says. The film version with Moreno is newly out on DVD ($19, Warner Archive)
In 1971, Moreno had a plum role in Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, as a hooker with Jack Nicholson in the film’s final scene.
“I had an hilarious experience watching it with my husband. We’re sitting behind two old women who clucked their way through it. ‘Rose, oh my God! Can you believe it? It’s disgusting! Oh my God! What is she doing there? Rose, I can only hope she’s down on her knees praying.’ They stayed through the very end.”
IF YOU GO
Rita Moreno signs purchased copies of her memoir at 2 p.m. Saturday at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.