After more than seven decades in the spotlight, Rita Moreno is ready for her close-up! “I don’t mind being admired and respected because it’s been a hard road,” Rita, who is the subject of a new documentary, tells Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. “I feel extremely fortunate.”
It took more than luck for Rita, a Puerto Rican immigrant from New York, to become a celebrated performer. The new documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It celebrates Rita’s talent and tenacity, but also explores how close her life came to being derailed by the difficult men, including Marlon Brando, whom she loved. “I’ve always had to fight for what I’ve gotten, always,” says Rita, 89. “It has never come easy.”
Rita arrived in New York City in 1936 with her seamstress mother. “I had a really hard time with racial prejudice. People would call me names. I grew up thinking I had very little value,” confides Rita, who sought refuge in singing, dancing and watching movies. “I never had a role model because there was nobody like me [in the movies] when I was a girl,” she says. “But Elizabeth Taylor became my icon because she was beautiful, young and a star.”
At 13, Rita found her first role on Broadway and by 19 started playing small parts in the movies. “I did a lot of what I called the dusky maidens,” says Rita, who played non-white roles of every ethnicity, including a Burmese concubine in the 1956 musical The King and I. She resented the stereotyping. “All the roles I played usually had an accent,” Rita recalls. “It hurt because I speak really fine English — but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to stay in movies.”
Landing the role of Anita, a strong, outspoken Puerto Rican woman, in 1961’s West Side Story, should have been a life-changer. Rita became the first Latina to ever win an Oscar — but her triumph did not lead to better parts. “I was offered a lot more gang movies,” she confides. “I didn’t work for seven years after the Oscar and the Golden Globe. It broke my heart.”
In her private life, the uncertainties of her childhood caused Rita to fall for strong, controlling men. In 1954, she met Marlon Brando on the set of Désirée and plunged into a torrid eight-year romance. “It was lust at first sight! Our sensual life was unbelievable,” Rita confides, but adds that their attraction was “obsessive” and unhealthy.
“The more I saw of Marlon, the less I thought of myself.”
Three years after they split, she wed Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who became her manager. “We were married for around 46 years, but the last 20 years were not happy ones,” admits Rita, who was widowed in 2010. “He was a very controlling man — wonderful husband, father, loyal, but controlling.”
Despite her disappointments and heartbreaks, Rita kept working. In addition to her Oscar, she is one of the rare performers who has also won a Tony, Grammy and Emmy award. Today, she’s still working and enjoying her well-deserved status as a legend and role model. “This is the third act of my life and I want to be able to taste all the good stuff,” she says. “I’m taking advantage of every moment and I am doing it with a vengeance!”
— Louise A. Barile
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.