At 18, she was signed by MGM, where she languished in ethnic roles from Latin sexpots to Arabian princesses. Even after winning an Oscar for her role as Anita, the Hispanic girlfriend of the Sharks' gang leader, in the 1961 musical "West Side Story," she was off the screen for seven years because she refused to play "house ethnics." Her persistence paid off with better roles and Tony, Grammy and Emmy wins.
Moreno, 81, will discuss her career and more with Jud Newborn, Cinema Arts curator and producer of the event, Thursday night following a screening of "West Side Story." at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. She'll also sign copies of "Rita Moreno: A Memoir." She recently chatted by phone from Berkeley, Calif.
What was the hardest thing for you about making "West Side Story"?
The dancing. I didn't even know if I would pass the dance audition. It was very difficult. I hadn't danced in about 10 years. It was a kind of dancing I had never done before. I was a Spanish dancer, which meant flamenco and heelwork and castanets, and I had never done what was jazz. A lot of people think it's called modern dance, and it's not. I just barely passed the audition for that. I passed with flying colors on the auditions for the singing and acting parts. I had to try out for everything. The dancing was very scary and I somehow managed. I wanted that role so badly. The rest is history. ... Jerry worked me so hard that it verged on the sadistic. I worked like a beast. When all the kids had a break, they would light up a cigarette. I was in a corner going over my steps. And I think I gained his respect for that.
Why did they dub your voice for "A Boy Like That"?
It's one of the rangiest songs ever written. It starts very low, and goes way up. I didn't have the low range for that. ... I might have been able to do it if someone had worked with me on trying to get those low notes. ... To this day I regret it. Whenever I hear that girl's voice, I go nuts.
You also have that dramatic candy store scene where you're nearly raped. That had to be a really tough scene to do.
That was very, very difficult. It was very emotional for me. It opened up all kinds of wounds that had never really healed. Being called all those terrible names. ... At one point, after we'd been shooting that scene for three days, the director yelled "cut." I went and sat down at the candy counter put my head in my arms, and just started to cry and sob and couldn't stop. It was so bad that the director had to call an early lunch because I couldn't control myself. Of course, the poor kids felt so bad, and they said: "Oh, Rita, please don't cry. They're gonna hate us." It was very sad. The scene that really clinched it for me with the Oscar was the scene at the end of that scene, where the boys try to grab me again and I say, "Don't you touch me." I think that's the Oscar scene. It was very strong and it was filled with enormous passion and emotion. There's always the scene that clinches an Oscar, and I think that was it for me.
Did you expect them to cast a Hispanic actress for the role of Maria?
There weren't many Hispanic actresses around who could play the role. There weren't that many that could do Anita either. In terms of type, they could have done a whole lot better than Natalie. Just because she had brown hair and brown eyes didn't make her look in any way Latina. Natalie had just finished "Splendor in the Grass," in which she was probably at her very best. But she wasn't a star star yet. They finally settled for someone who had a kind of name and more or less followed the type -- brunette, dark eyes and all that stuff. In terms of type strictly, they could have done a lot better.
Were you surprised when you won the Oscar?
I was astonished. If you look up my so-called acceptance speech, you'll see what I mean: "I did not expect to win. I don't believe it. I don't believe it. I leave you with that." And then I got into the wings and started to cry.
Did you think winning the award would open a lot more doors for you in Hollywood?
I did. Ha-ha. I was offered a few more gang-type movies. I said not anymore, and I'm not going to speak with an accent anymore. Well, I guess I showed them.
It was really hard when you started out finding a role for a Hispanic actress, wasn't it?
There were no roles for Hispanic actresses. What there were ethnic roles -- Indian maidens in B Westerns, young Arabian princesses, anything but Hispanic. I became the house ethnic. And I always had to use an accent, so I developed what I call in the book a universal ethnic accent.
Did you ever get so frustrated that you were ready to just give up?
It was horrifying and very diminishing and it's what eventually drove me into therapy. I felt I had so little value and thought so little or myself. I did not think much of myself. I never thought I was pretty in the first place, so that added to all that Sturm und Drang. I had a very bad time.
And you were under contract to MGM, which was known for its musicals yet they didn't let you sing or dance.
It was amazing to me. The first film I did for them was a musical with Mario Lanza, "The Toast of New Orleans." I did get one dance and that was the last time I danced in a film until "West Side Story," which was bizarre. Show business is so bizarre.
Do you think you would you have an easier time starting out today than you did back in the '50s?
No question at all. I envy like people like Rosie Perez, Jimmy Smits and Jennifer Lopez. It's so much easier for them, and none of them has to use a Hispanic accent. Everything I did required an accent. I probably spoke better English than a lot of other actors. English was my second language and I really had to learn it well.
He was wonderful. He was very demanding. He had a delicious sense of humor. Just think of it, this little Puerto Rican girl in the same movie with one of her idols. It was insane. I was on that set every single day watching. People would say, 'I see you are absorbing and taking lessons.' Hell, no, I was just watching.
I visited sets all the time. I was there when Judy Garland was making "Summer Stock" and did the "Get Happy" number. I was on those sets all the time visiting. I didn't work that much, so I had lots of time on my hands. I would get all dressed up and put on makeup and go to the studio and have lunch at the commissary and watch all the great stars come in, and go and visit the sets. It was just heaven.
What star do you especially remember meeting?
My first day at the studio I was introduced to Clark Gable. I thought I would wet my knickers. He said , "Rosita, what a good name." The wonderful part was that I didn't have to sneak in. I would walk in with my MGM pass. And they got to know me at the gate, so I didn't even need to show anything. I'd go onto any set, see who was in it, and I'd go visit.
Your book is getting a lot of attention, especially since you spend so much time on your relationship with Marlon Brando. How hard was that to write?
I go into Marlon Brando a great deal because he played a huge, huge part in my life in my development, my evolution and my lack of development. He was one of the great loves of my life. If you're going to write your story, you can't omit that. It's not a dishy book, it's not a name-dropping book. There are one or two pages at the most about a couple of the men in my life. Brando is something very important that happened in my life. There's no bitterness, there's no nastiness.
I was brought up to be a good little girl, and to be a good little girl who had to please everyone, especially men. So I put up with a lot of bad behavior with men. One of the objectives of the book is to show women they are worth more than that, that they have more value than they think they do. And they must find a way to not be ruled by the shoulds, which we are very often are.
Are you excited about coming back to Long Island?
Oh, yes. When my stepfather and my mom bought a little house in Valley Stream, which was next to a beet farm, we felt we had really graduated. I'm sure I would not recognize it now.