The legendary Rita Moreno reveals she is working hard on her memoirs, which “are going to be published in the spring. It was my personal manager who just kept pushing and saying, ‘You know, there’s a great book in you,'” says the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner. What a life saga – including blasting to movie stardom — and immortality — with “West Side Story,” a tumultuous six-year relationship with Marlon Brando, Broadway success with shows including The Ritz, and television acclaim.
Moreno, widowed two years ago after 46 years of marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, says that working on her book has been “revelatory. I figured some things out that I couldn’t find answers to — I mean some really, really deep-seated memories of things I just couldn’t figure out. And a number of times of course I wept copious tears.”
Asked if her writing is helping to fill the hours since she lost her husband, Moreno smiles and says “Oh, my dear — I barely have time to eat! I’m redecorating the house now, my way. That’s just one thing.” She laughs slightly, then notes that she was at a party the other day, and found herself talking to a group of divorced and widowed women who were “relishing their freedom. That happened to me as well. I was married a long time, and there’s something pretty fabulous about not having to explain anything. This is unexpected. Boy, I sure hope that doesn’t sound callous, but I was so surprised when the other widowed woman there said the same thing.”
Her days truly are full, including her current TV gig, on TV Land’s “Happily Divorced.”
“I’m 80 years old, I’m playing Fran Drescher’s mama, I look really good in the series — thanks to the glories of makeup and lighting — and I adore her. What could be bad? We have a fabulous chemistry, she and I.”
Moreno is also helping promote the special, 60th year anniversary video release of “Singin’ in the Rain” — which ends an 18-month moratorium July 17 with the debut of a three-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and DVD Pack from Warner Home Video. The classic musical marked one of her first film roles.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was working with my icon, my hero, my idol, Gene Kelly. I mean, you have to put yourself in my place, this little girl from Puerto Rico and New York, suddenly, there I am — my God — with Gene Kelly, who actually cast me in the movie as Zelda Zanders.”
She recalls that casting session “was an amazing experience, but then he said, ‘I want you to cut your hair.’ And like a good Latina, I said, ‘No, I won’t cut my hair.’ I went home and thought, ‘What have I done?’ But he finally acquiesced and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll put a wig on you.'”
She goes on, “I only had about four scenes, maybe five, but I attended every shooting day of that movie. I had to be there.”
Kelly’s beloved title number was the last sequence shot, she says, because he and co-director Stanley Donen knew how difficult his singing and dancing in the rain was going to be. “They wanted to be able to control the way things looked, so they had a huge, huge four-sided black tent. And every so often they would have to roll up the sides to let in some air because the camera lens would fog up. They used cold water, which was very important, and I saw him splish and splash for days on end. I don’t know how he did it, because he was just sopping wet. He caught a terrible cold after that.”
Moreno also fondly recalls being on hand when Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor shot their bouncy “Make ‘Em Laugh” number. “It’s sort of a play on ‘Be a Clown.’ I remember someone told me that the songwriter who actually wrote ‘Be a Clown’ was not thrilled because it was such a ripoff, an absolute knockoff of ‘Be a Clown.’ They got away with it because it was not the same melody, but it had many similarities musically. Many people think of it as the ‘Be a Clown’ number. ‘Be a Clown’ goes like this,” she says, and demonstrates, voice soaring. “And ‘Make ’em Laugh’ goes like this,” she says, and sings part of the familiar tune. “It’s the melody turned on its side.”
According to the marvelous-looking Moreno (and no, it’s not all due to makeup and lighting magic) the film team knew “Singin’ in the Rain” was special, “but only in that it was going to be another great Gene Kelly MGM musical. I don’t think anyone really thought it would be the classic it’s become.”