Whichever news channel Darleen and I watch depends on the hour when the day’s work is done, our mood, and which network that day seems to be coming closest to reporting the news as opposed to trying to influence it. The other evening it was PBS, and they closed their segment by interviewing Rita Moreno, who has finally, at eighty-one, written an autobiography.
Rita Moreno is one of a very small and elite number of people ever to have won an Academy Award, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy. Two Emmy’s, actually, in her case. She is also the first Latina ever to win an Academy Award. During the course of the interview she talked about the problems of institutionalized racism in Hollywood, where Latinas were stereotyped as tempestuous spitfires and sexpots. She talked about how for much of her career, in spite of her 1961 Oscar (playing a sexy and tempestuous Puerto Rican spitfire in Westside Story) she was painted various shades of brown and required to use various accents to portray just about every kind of sexy and tempestuous barefoot minority you can imagine from every corner of the globe you can imagine. However, just to show you that the gods do have a sense of humor—albeit a distorted one—after the interview was over, I switched the channel to watch Singin’ in the Rain, one of the greatest movies ever made, and one where Rita Moreno played a character with the emphatically non-Hispanic name of Zelda Zanders, who helps out Jean Hagen’s obnoxious and bubble-headed movie star (glamorously named Lina Lamont). In another twist of fate, Rita Moreno, who was and still is a great dancer herself, does no dancing in Singin’ in the Rain, something that must have driven her batty with frustration, to watch the incomparable Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor defying gravity’s pull without her.
In a television movie back in 1979 she also played a divorced non-Latina named Nina Taggert, whose son, Ed, is having an affair with her best friend, played by Susan Flannery. I know, because I played the role of Ed.
Time is a terrible thief. I remember so little of my former life, and I so rarely look backward, that I had to search Rita Moreno on the IMDb to remind myself what the name of that TV movie was. It was called Anatomy of a Seduction, and it was the project that brought me out to Hollywood so many years ago. I remember very little of the script and storyline other than it was intended as a study of women dealing with middle age. I remember even less of the actual filming. I believe my sole contribution to the final product was to point out that if Rita Moreno, with her sloe black hair and quick black eyes, was my mother, something had better be done to alter my waspy, Wonder bread appearance, or everyone might think the conspicuously absent daddy was an albino. As a result, my hair was dyed a dark shade of brown that made me look like an early model of the Just For Men line of hair color products.
There is only one other thing I really remember clearly. I had a bit of a crush on Rita Moreno, which could be interpreted as some kind of Oedipal thing, given the plot of the movie, but it was only in part because of her beauty and her sexiness. The major part of it had to do with her incandescent talent. I don’t just mean the movies I had seen, but her work in our movie was such that I used to hang out on the set just to watch her.
Which is how I came to see a scene between her and Susan Flannery, and to hear the only line I remember. Rita Moreno is telling Susan Flannery about going out to a bar in the hope of a little conversation with a man, a little flirting, perhaps a little romance. She recounts how a man buys her a drink, and they start talking, and how the man, possibly intending it as a compliment, says to her, “Boy, you must have been really hot when you were young.”
There were so many ways Rita Moreno might have played that moment, but the reason it has stayed in my memory bank all these years, was that she put so much hidden pain into it. On the surface, she throws the line away with a wry little laugh, but her eyes, those beautiful eyes…
She invested so much, and so many layers, into that line that, thirty-five years later, lying helpless in a hospital bed, all my normal bodily capacities taken from me, being bathed, moved, fed, cleaned by nurses young enough to be my grandchildren, helpless and broken, that line popped into my head, and I wondered if any of the child nurses looked at my broken body and thought, “He must have been quite an athlete once.” Aging is hard enough without putting vanity into the mix, but we are what we are.
I haven’t yet read her autobiography, Rita Moreno: A Memoir, but given her intelligence, her talent, and her extraordinary life, it’s hard to imagine it being anything less than fascinating.