More than in any of her other films (The King and I, etc.), I fondly remember Rita Moreno in her landmark role as Anita in the 1961 classic West Side Story (with Natalie Wood as the pretty Maria) for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. That’s why when I read in People magazine that the Puerto Rico-born actress has just come out with her autobiography, simply titled Rita Moreno: A Memoir, first thing I did when I was in L.A. last April was rush to Barnes & Noble (my reader-friendly hangout where you can stay there the whole day and read books and magazines) at The Groove in Beverly Hills and buy a copy.
What was intriguing in the People story are Moreno’s juicy revelations, including her romances with Hollywood actors, the most passionate being with Marlon Brando whose favorite perfume, Vent Vert by Balmain, Moreno said she was wearing as she wrote the long chapters about that episode in her colorful life that nearly drove her to end her life.
There was also her romance with Dennis Hopper and Elvis Presley, both of whom Moreno said she “used” to make Brando jealous “because the one thing Marlon could not stand was the idea of my being with someone else.”
The book, written with such candor and fondness (about the peaks in her life) but without any hint of bitterness (about the valleys of her life), is so engrossing that I read it non-stop on the 12-hour-plus direct PAL flight back to Manila. Moreno opens it with her recollection of how she, at age five, and her mother (whose love life was just as checkered) disembarked in New York in 1936 from a slow boat from San Juan, Puerto Rico, “terribly sick — burning-up, shaking-cold, itching-like-crazy sick all over my body.”
It didn’t take long before Rosita Dolores Alvero began her long journey to becoming the Rita Moreno. No, I won’t spoil the fun by telling Moreno’s whole story (reminder: there must be a copy in any National bookstore outlet, so buy one pronto!) but I will let you in on some interesting chapters — and the juicy revelations I was telling you about earlier.
One: Her tumultuous, all-consuming and “life-threatening” romance with Brando who, according to Moreno, spotted her on the March 1, 1954 cover of Life magazine, a head shot in which “I am looking back over my shoulder. My teeth are bared and my eyes widened in a classic come-hither expression that is both sweetly innocent and tantalizingly sexual.”
Moreno recalled how Brando pursued her initially by telephone, talking to her for hours “interspersed with periods of silence that might last for as long as a half hour” when Brando was thinking of what to say next, adding how every moment and “every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’ve ever known” and, as a great lover, to describe him as “sensual, generous, delightfully inventive would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul.”
Moreno had to extricate herself from her suffocating romance with Brando who almost proved fatal, “I almost died from loving him,” meaning it not just figuratively. She said that Brando preferred women of color and “bedded Tahitians, East Indians, Native American Indians, Mexicans, Filipinos, Asians, Jamaicans,” resulting in his children being of mixed race.
Two: Did you know that, according to Moreno, Elvis’ gyrations “were originally caused by uncontrolled stage fright that made his body shake, a symptom he disguised by trying to make it appear deliberate? That ploy became an out-of-control success.” That’s okay since Elvis fans have accepted The Pelvis for what he was and loved it for the wild fantasies that it generated, didn’t we? Moreno’s motive in dating Elvis was to make Brando jealous as no other man ever could.
But her dates with Elvis paled in comparison with those with Brando, “concluded in a tender tussle on my living room floor, with Elvis’ pelvis in that famous gyration straining against his taut trousers.” She called it “grinding,” which was, Moreno said, all that Elvis wanted to do, saying, “We can just do this, okay?”
Three: This one should be interesting to us Filipino fans — Moreno got the news that she was nominated for Best Actress (for West Side Story), and eventually won, while shooting a B-movie titled Cry of Bataan (“as a girl guerrilla, a hybrid double agent/whore/fighter”) with Van Heflin in the Philippines. Yes, it’s true: It was Pitoy Moreno (no relation) who designed Rita Moreno’s gown that she wore when she mounted the stage to receive her trophy.
Quote-unquote:…They would release me for only three days: one day to fly over, one day for the Oscar ceremony, and one day to fly back to the jungle…I didn’t care. The important thing was that I was going! I ordered a heavily brocaded dress made of special Japanese obi fabric, a gorgeous gown with black bateau top that I still have (and can still get into, happily).
When she returned triumphant to the jungle location, Moreno recalled, “I saw a commotion on the mountain. It was a long procession of people coming down the slope: Every Filipino in the movie was marching down the mountain, singing and calling out congratulations. They all carried signs that said, ‘Mabuhay, Rita! Victory, Rita!’”
With that, how can we not love Rita Moreno!
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