Rita Moreno, coming to Well Healed Woman Conference in Groton, is enjoying a reinvigorated, busy career — at age 87
There was a period in Rita Moreno’s life where she went without acting work — inexplicably so, considering it was right after she won the Academy Award for playing Anita in “West Side Story” in 1962. She refused to take the only movie roles offered her post-Oscar — stereotyped ones in grade-B gang flicks. So she went seven years without being in a motion picture.
She turned to stage work then and, over the years, she has built an enviable list of credits.
Here she is now, about to turn 88 next month, and Moreno is enjoying an absolutely thriving career.
She has been starring on Norman Lear’s reboot of “One Day at a Time.” After an acclaimed run on Netflix, the show is moving to Pop TV.
She just filmed a role in Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story.” Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Tony Kushner wrote a part in the screenplay specifically for Moreno.
And she’s doing guest spots, like a recurring gig on the ABC sitcom “Bless This Mess,” where she portrays Ed Begley Jr.’s ex-wife, a character Moreno says is “very sexy, she just speaks her mind, and she’s hilarious.”
During a recent phone interview, I comment on what a great few years it’s been for her. Moreno replies that it’s been a bit of a renaissance. Taking a cue from the McConaissance (a word someone dreamt up to refer to Matthew McConaughey's career resurgence a few years back), I respond that, with Moreno, it's the Morenaissance.
“That is fantastic!” she says with a laugh. “I have to remember that. Thank you, I’m going to use it!”
Asked why she thinks she’s getting these opportunities at this point in her life, she says, “Who the hell knows! … Why not sooner! Jesus! Everything hurts now!”
She also says, “I’ve become what they call — that terrible cliché — a feisty old lady. I just hate that phrase, but that’s what I’ve become. Opinionated, more than ever. And I sometimes have a potty mouth. … Well, you know what I say? (Expletive) ’em if they can’t take a joke!”
That "feisty old lady" has had a lifetime of acclaim for her acting. Moreno is one of those talented few who can lay claim to the EGOT, meaning she has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Her career has spanned an amazing array of projects. She starred in the children’s TV series “The Electric Company” in the 1970s and played a nun in the prison drama “Oz,” which ran 1997-2003. Her movie credits range from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Carnal Knowledge” to “The Four Seasons.”
Moreno, who was selected to be one of the grand marshals for the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day, will be coming to Connecticut to speak at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital’s Well-Healed Woman conference on Nov. 17 at the Mystic Marriott in Groton. The topic: “Growing older without growing old.”
If anyone is qualified to speak on that subject, it’s Moreno.
Asked for hints on how to, in fact, grow older without growing old, she says, “It’s a question of how you perceive yourself. It has so much to do with your enthusiasms and your interests and whether you remain curious. That stuff is very energizing. That’s the kind of person I am anyway. That’s really my nature; I’m energetic and I’m loud and raucous, and I’m funny, and I laugh a lot. When I cry, I cry hard. I’m such a Puerto Rican.”
She is also optimistic, certainly an advantageous trait as one ages. In her 2013 memoir, Moreno recalled that Marlon Brando, with whom she had a long-running and tempestuous romance, said to her: “You carry a stick with a nail in the end, like a park attendant. But instead of picking up trash, you pick up bits of hope and deposit them in your little brown paper bag.”
“Isn’t that a marvelous image? And I’m still the same way,” she says now.
She realizes, of course, that isn’t always easy. She understands there are many people in pain and says, “There are so many people suffering with very good reason. People are angry, especially nowadays, and people are hurt and fragile and tender. I know all of that, but if you don’t find a little room, a little corner in your life … you’ve got to look for joy somewhere.”
What follows are some excerpts from the interview with Moreno, during which she was candid, thoughtful, and very funny.
Moreno is proof that enjoying your work helps you stay young:
“I love what I do, and it always amazes me that I actually get paid for it. I have no intention of quitting my day job. I love to act. I love to perform. I love to make people smile. Don’t let any actor tell you that it’s a chore. I love it. I love the attention! Come on, I mean, ‘No, that’s not why I do it, I do it for the art’? Bullshit!”
Reflecting on the period after “West Side Story” where she went seven years without making a movie:
“It broke my heart. It absolutely broke my heart … I have all of these fabulous awards and no work. There was such a reminder all the time — horrible. It’s just a mean business. And if you don’t work, you’re not seen, and if you’re not seen, you’re not remembered, so it’s like a vicious circle. So frustrating.” She says she remembers seeing movies and thinking, “God, I could have done that part.”
What her career might have been like had she been starting out now:
“I think it would have been different. I might have had a different kind of celebrity.”
Why she wanted to be part of “One Day at Time”:
“Norman Lear. Somebody I’ve always wanted to work with. I’m the first person he thought of for this. Just the thought that I’d be working with that icon, and he’s just, by the way, a remarkable man.”
She recalls being on the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes with Lear, who was 95 then:
“I was going to go with Norman as my date — Norman is married, as I’m sure you know, but he was going to go as my date. Then, he said, ‘I don’t think I can take that long walk,’ because you stop so many times for the photographers. His partner, Brent Miller, said, ‘I have an idea,’ and we got an electric scooter for both of us. I sat in back of him, and it was absolutely hilarious, because the stops and starts — I thought I would get whiplash. He was loving it! I don’t how many people he damn near ran over … When we got off, he said, ‘I felt like a child again.’ Everybody should feel like a child now and then.”
Describing working with Spielberg:
“Divine! I’m very mischievous on a set, so we just got along like bread and butter, absolutely had a wonderful time."
In the upcoming “West Side Story" (set to be released Dec. 18, 2020), Moreno plays the widow of Doc, who owned the candy store where the Jets hung out in the original film:
“It’s not a cameo, it’s a real part. I even sing in it, which is the last thing in the world I expected when Steven asked if I’d be interested in the part. Like I would say no! Yeah, right! ‘December? Oh, gosh, no! I’m so busy!’”
Moreno believes in keep physically active:
“It’s very important and it’s not a question of running, and it’s not a question of doing the things that are normally prescribed. It’s a question of where you are in your head. Walking makes a big, big difference. You don’t have to power walk. As you get older, you can just walk … That’s more important than anything else, I think. It helps keep your brain active. I do things, like I choose tasks for myself — I write with my left hand when I’m really right-handed as an exercise, because it just makes my brain work. I walk backwards, but I have to do that in a very safe place. … Anything that makes your brain work doing things out of the ordinary.”
Moreno mentions that she was in New England earlier this fall with Fernanda, her daughter with her late husband, Lenny Gordon:
“My birthday present to my daughter, which I thought was really original and so special was, we rented a car and went looking at all of the turning of the leaves. It was astonishing. She says she’s never had a present like that, never will. …
“The funny thing is, we went there about a week ago (so the second-to-last week of October) and everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, what a shame, you’re about a week late.’ And I kept saying, ‘For what? This is incredible! Late for what?’ Oh, God, I’ve never had so much fun. We’re very, very close, so it was just a terrific, terrific experience.”
If you go
Who: Rita Moreno delivers keynote address
What: The Well Healed Woman conference
Presented by: Lawrence + Memorial Hospital
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa, 625 North Road, Groton
Also part of the event: MaryAnn Bentz, MD, will discuss skin health in the morning session
Includes: Continental breakfast starting at 9:30 a.m. and lunch at 12:30 p.m.
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