tv Tavis Smiley PBS September 18, 2014 12:00am-12:31am PDT
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. tonight, our conversation with a legendary actress and dancer rita moreno. all this week as i continue to prepare for next monday's edition of "dancing with the stars." we've been celebrating the world's most acclaimed dancers. i hope by doing so some of their expertise and talent will rub off on me. rita moreno made her way to holly at at the age of 13, won an oscar, grammy, and two tonys along way. her performance in "west side story" captured the most amazing dancing ever put on film. we're glad you've joined us tonight. our conversation with the remarkable rita moreno coming up right now. ♪
colonel knowledge, and the four seasons. along the way she has picked up an oscar, a tony, two emmys. a grammy. and was awarded a national medal of honor. she's one of few artists to pull off that array of awards and the first and only latina to do all that. she's written a very frank and fascinating memoir about her remarkable life, entitled appropriately enough "rita moreno: a memoir." i can't rye sis opening this conversation without showing a clip of you in with the que"wes story." >> okay. ♪ puerto rico, my heart's devotion ♪ ♪ let it sink back in the ocean ♪ ♪ always the hurricane blowing ♪ always the population growing ♪ ♪ and the money owing and the
sun light streaming and the native steaming ♪ ♪ i like the island manhattan >> i know you do. >> when you see these clips, all these years later, do you think what? >> oh, i loved it. >> yeah. >> it just takes me back to a time when i finally got a chance to do what i was able to do for years before that. and where i got to play a real hispanic person, not those lolita things that i did forever. why you no love me no more? you think you can fool lolita? which is funny now. but, you know, those were -- i got to do nothing but that, then along came, finally along came
this wonderful role of a hispanic woman with, i want to say balls, but i'll say ovaries. and someone with character and strength, and it was nothing but joy. i loved doing it. i was so proud of being in that film. it's a great film. >> it is a great film. >> obviously the dialogue is very dated and all that stuff, but it's still a treasure. >> you wanted this for all the reasons you just articulated now. you wanted it and got it. obviously it paid off. what did you have to go through to get that part then? >> then? well, i had to audition. is that what you meant? >> yeah. how difficult or easy was is to actually land the part? >> it was not easy because for one thing, i had to audition for all the parts that were required of me. singing, did a singing audition. i did an acting audition. and the thing that scared me the most was dancing because i hadn't done -- i hadn't danced at that time for at least ten
years. that's like asking somebody to suddenly play five sets of tennis a day. you can't do it. i don't care how much you're willing, the body is willing and the mind, but you can't do it. i ran when they found out that they loved me for the part but the one remaining audition was can she pull off this kind of dancing? i was a spanish dancer. i don't mean to put that down because that was great, too, but nothing like the kind of dancing you had to do in "west side story" which is called jazz. i killed myself. i worked so hard at the dance studio. because i just registered for every class there was. i worked from 9:00 in the morning to 9:00 or 10:00 at night just dancing. trying to get my groove back as it were. and it was very frightening because i thought if i lose this, knowing that they want me really badly, but i lose it because i don't get the dancing,
i'm going to just want to die. and i did the audition with my heart in my throat. a friend of mine taught me steps in advance in case those were the steps to america that were going to be taught me in an audition. most people don't know, dancing auditions, you learn the steps right now. you try to do it slowly, a little faster. finally say say, oka, do it up . ♪ and i got through it. and i had to do the steps that my friend had taught me. and jerome robbins apparently was very anxious about -- he was the choreographer, co-director of "west side story." dying to know how i did. his assistant said, you know, she needs some work. i have a feeling she's not danced in quite a while but she has style. she's vivacious and funny. she said, you know what's really
impressive? she learned so fast. but i knew those steps. i knew those steps. >> so you get this part. obviously all works out. you go on to win an academy award. >> an academy award and a golden globe. >> and a golden globe. >> yeah. give me just two seconds to set this up because i know you already as -- >> i know the story. >> you know the story. and as prescient as you are, i know you know where i want to go with this. i have had countless conversations in my career on tv and radio, on my shows, about what an academy award is worth for a person of color. and if you and i were -- if we had hours to talk, i would give you my list -- >> oh, i love where you're going. nobody's ever brought this up. >> if we had two or three hours to talk, i would give you my list which is a very short list because, pardon me, three names on the list of persons of color who i believe have won academy
awards and continue to elevate their game after they won. that is to say, that hollywood gave them better and additional opportunities to continue perfecting their craft. as opposed to winning an academy award, and we don't see you for years or you start doing a bunch of crap after you won the academy award. >> right. >> so, that's a long way of asking, after you won your academy award, how long before you did your next film? >> you ready? >> i'm ready. >> you read the book. >> i know the answer. >> seven years. >> one, two, three, four, five, six, seven years. not seven months. seven years. >> i didn't do a film for seven years. i had -- once i had that little gold man under my, you know, in my grasp, i thought, okay, that's it. no more of those stereotypical lolitas or whatever. i'm not going to do any movies like that. boy, i showed them. i showed them.
cut off my nose to spite my face. i know you've heard that expression. i wasn't spiting my face. i was determined. i got the highest accolade in my profession, and i'm not going to denigrate it or devalue it by going back to those horrible gang movies and all that kind of stuff. that's all i was offered. so i was offered some things, not much, by the way, but i didn't do a film for seven whole years. >> talk to me, then, about how you emotionally navigated that period? and how you professionally, with your gold man statue, how you professionally navigated that drought, that dearth of opportunity? >> emotionally, it was hard for me. i couldn't belief i wasnve i wa getting any offers. normally, you're supposed to have reams of offers from a lot of places. obviously, a lot of people felt i was very talented because they voted for me including the
people in a position to emplo y me but didn't. it's because for whatever reasons, i played the hispanic character. and they couldn't think anywhere beyond that box. and professionally, i navigated it a whole lot better because there i just said, okay, i'll do theater. i'll do tv. i'll do summer stock. i'll do whatever i can to embrace what i love best and to earn some points in terms of enriching my talent. i had a long way to go. i thought i was good in "west side story" but needless to say when i look at it mow, i say ah, i could have done this, i could have done that, and i didn't get the second chance to do this or do that. >> what did you think, then, that you had to work on in -- you were young. what did you think -- what did you see immediately that you had to work on to continue to perfect your gift? >> i felt that i had to work on
my speaking voice. which was never really very exciting speaking voice. >> it always works for me. >> well. >> works for me. >> didn't for me. anyway, i just felt i needed more experience. and, you know, unfortunately, the only experience i could get was for what i wanted for my goals was more movies. but i wasn't getting more movies, so i did the next best thing which really was a very good thing which is to go to theater. because in theater, theater is the one place where people of color, or of different nationalities, had a better break. doesn't mean they had a great break, but they had a better chance of doing roles on stage than you would in films and television. you know, even know, tavis, the door is ajar. it isn't wide open. and if you try to push on it, you have to push pretty hard, still. we're not talking about someone
like jennifer lopez. she's some kind of phenom that just defies belief, really, and understanding. but it's still very difficult. and, you know, i still get offered parts of -- now grandmothers -- who speak with an accent and all that which is fine, it's just that they're written so badly. and i just -- i'm 81 now. i'm an old -- i'm a fartette. >> nobody would believe it. put that camera back on miss moreno. 81. i'm not buying it. i'm not buying it. >> yeah. i deliberately state my age because it keeps me honest. i think lying is a bad idea. sooner or later, someone is going to catch you. >> one of the things i loved about this book is the honesty, authentici authenticity, the transparency, which so often people don't want to put -- you know, i've never understood people in this town or elsewhere who write a book called a memoir and don't want to tell the truth. i don't quite get it.
>> i had a talk to myself about that. if you're really going to do this, because the publishers were very interested, and it's about your life and you have to write about your life. >> yeah. >> i had to do that. you know, it was even -- on a few occasions i put myself on the carpet about certain things. but that's part of living. >> i'm sure you've been asked this many times but not by me, so i want to hear your response. just a quick thought on the progress that has or has not been made with specific regard to latinas. you were one of the first ones through the door. rita hayworth. wow were there first. >> rita hayworth wasn't considered hispanic. >> that's true. i was about to say that. what's your sense of what the progress has or has not been in these now 81 years of your life? >> it's better. i really can't jump up and down with joy. i get asked very, very often by my people, for that matter, because i have a big black
audience. i'm happy to say. >> absolutely. >> i'm proud to say. and i get asked, how come, you know, you're the only one so far that ever got an oscar? how come more latinos -- the answer's really not that difficult. you can't, or you shouldn't be nominated for an oscar unless you turned in a performance that's special. you can't turn in a performance that's special unless you get a special kind of role. anita in "west side story" came along in a time when a very unusual movie was being made, which by the way i didn't think was going to make a cent. turns out, 50 years later and it's still playing everywhere, somewhere. >> everywhere. yeah. >> so, i don't -- you know, i think we've got to stop -- it's just got to stop at some point doing, writing latino roles. or black roles. and while those have a place, there's only one place -- we
need to -- we ghettoize ourselves in some ways as well. as well as we victimize ourselves. i've talked to a lot of young people, you know, who the first words out of their mouth is, well, if they didn't blah blah, or it's not my fault because they don't like people, don't like puerto rico people. you know, my answer -- i'm very much like bill in that sense -- cosby. i just say, yeah, well, that's true, they do. so what? what are you going to do about it? are you going to sit here and whine? because you'll end up washing dishes. i mean, if you want to be a star, what is a star? fancy cars, great sneakers and stuff like that? and my -- i tell you, my middle name really is perseverance. it's, i just -- i've always believed that i had talent. even when i felt like a very unserious sort of person, which i spent a lot of time living my life feeling that i wasn't worthy. but even then, i knew that i had
something special, and maybe that's what it takes. maybe it needs -- people need to have that kind of a particular core driving them. but i felt i had talent. >> yeah. >> you were very -- were and are -- very active. very politically and socially and culturally engaged. you were at the march on washington. >> i was there. >> how did you get so active? >> tavis, how? >> yeah, what got you into this? >> i had a roommate, a roommate who vwas political. i met her in therapy. >> yay for group therapy. >> yay for neurosis. >> she was very political. i learned being in service and being involved in something that is greater than you, is what makes a person complete and whole. >> uh-huh. >> and the very first thing i
ever did in terms of activism was for an anti-atom bomb rally. 100 years ago. and i felt wonderful after it. and i helped her raise funds, and i was told that the people taking movies of me and taking pictures of me were not friends. it was the fbi. >> yeah. >> and i got scared. and i got scared, but i thought, well, i'm not going to let that stop me. then after that, you know, it's natural that it escalated into something more sophisticated and more political. and then, you know, first of all, let me state about the martin luther king talk. >> yeah. >> that -- >> the "i have a dream" speech. >> we were ten feet away from him. we were sitting at the monument. >> you, all these stars,
belafonte. >> directors. writers. >> yeah. >> we weren't talking to each other then. there we were in the sweltering heat. i have never felt such heat. it felt like my -- i think my scalp burned because it was just so hot there. i saw every drop of perspiration on that man's face, and i was just mesmerized. i keep hoping i see my little head somewhere, and every time they show the film, but never, it never showed up. it never showed up. and then when we went off book, as it were, when he decided to go off the script -- >> to the dream. >> "i had a dream." >> i thought i would have a heart attack, honestly. every once in a while when a picture would go up, i'd look around me to the back because we were facing dr. king. and the people, that sea of wanting, yearning, needing. oh. faces. many of them wearing the uniform of that particular time which was the cover-alls in denim.
what an experience. and that's where i met james foreman. >> yeah. >> and we became involveinvolve. what a lovely man he was. >> since we're here, let me just -- i'll take it one at a time. so you met james foreman, you became romantically involved with him. >> right. >> prior to that, you had already been romantically involved with this guy named marlon brando, at the time of the march, you were not speaking to. >> not anymore. >> why were you not speaking at that point? >> we had a very long tulle m l tumultuous, you name it, relationship for almost eight years. he was a big-time fill land phi. people very often collude. you be my daddy, i'll be your little girl. that kind of thing. i became very subservient to marlon because that's the kind
of man i always chose, who i felt was stronger than i, more powerful. and, indeed, his celebrity was thrilling. here i am, you know, i can at least by association be powerful to him. for the time i'm with him at dinner or time i'm with him at his theater, whatever. and that ended in a very attempt at suicide on my part. i couldn't bear the humiliations i kept putting myself through. you really have to understand because some people said to me, now that i've read the story, i want to kill him. i have to correct them and say, it couldn't have happened without me. you know? and, yeah, i feel sorry for myself. i was a rather helpless creature then. but it couldn't have happened without me, that kind of tempestuous relationship. it was exciting. it was -- but the thing that i love the most is that one time when i got really angry at him for finding some lady's clothing
in his house, i got even in the most wonderful way. you know what's coming. should i go on? >> please do. please do. >> we'll do a little dish here. >> yes. go ahead. >> what happened was i read in a very famous columnist's, gossip columnist's column that elvis presley had spotted me at the 20th century fox commissary and wanted very much to meet me. so right after i read that, when he knew it came out, colonel parker calls me. mr. moreno, this is colonel parker. i want to say, no kidding. and he said, my client, elvis presley, would like very much to meet you. would you like to meet him? and i thought, what the heck? i said, yes, i would. and so i met elvis, and we started a kind of relationship.
he wasn't my kind of guy. i mean, you know, you had marlon brando on this side and elvis presley, but people say, well, how can you feel that way about him? well, he was beautiful. he wasn't handsome. he was kind of beautiful. beautiful face. perfect teeth. gorgeous hair. all of that. but he was a country boy. >> they don't -- i never met him. >> he didn't have a whole lot to say. >> i never met him. i can't imagine they come any more charismatic than brando. >> precisely. >> he was very bright. >> i don't think that elvis was charismatic. that word doesn't apply to him. there are many other wonderful words, but not charisma. marlon would fill a room the moment he entered it, just like the walls started to sweat. >> some of the stories you tell of back in the day, how did you navigate that, how did you get through all of that? >> well, it was enormous difficulty and not a whole lot of grace, either. i was also a surprisingly
innocent person for my age. i mean, whatever age i was, 18, 17, 19, i was very young for my age, anyway. and, you know, when i heard somebody using four-letter words, i was truly, truly shocked. that kind of thing. and then as i mentioned in this book about the hideous nightmare of a cocktail party that i was taken to, this sounds like a teaser, i don't mean it to be, but it's too long of a story to tell right now, you just go home and want to die. you're treated so badly. so poorly. that you -- and you just have to go home and regroup. and one of two things can happen when you have to do this all the time. constantly picking yourself up and doing that. is that you will either learn resilience, or you will develop a tough skin. a hide. i really didn't want to do that. so it was one of these -- it was a very conscious decision that i
had to make that i wasn't going to allow myself to get hard. and cynical. because i'd been a real -- marlon said something so wonderful about me once, it was rather touching -- >> marlon brando. >> sorry. yeah. it was rather touching and amusing. he said, you know, you're one of the most hopeful people i've ever melt. you make me think of a park attendant who has a long stick with the nail at the end of it, but instead of picking up trash, you go around picking up hope putting it into your little brown paper bag. that's me even now. i'm one of the most joyous people i've ever melt. truly. and perhaps it comes out of having been through so much bad stuff, but i know a lot of people who've been through bad stuff who aren't as joyous as i am. i wake up humming, honey. i'm 81 and i'm in the prime of my life. >> it is a life well lived. that is still being well lived. at 81. she ain't slowing down.
again, i don't believe she's 81. that's what her driver's license says. her book is "rita moreno: a memoir." i have not done justice to what you will read inside this book. it is inspiring. it is empowering. it is entertaining. and then some. thank you. for coming on. >> you made it such a joy. can i hug you? >> oh, please. >> okay. come here, you big drink of water. >> give me some of that. >> you're like a big old drink of water. >> that's our show. >> bye. for more information on today's show, visit tavis email@example.com. i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with mikhail baryshnikov about his continuing search for autistic excellence. next time. we'll see you then.
>> the following kqed production was produced in high definition. [ ♪music ] >> yes, check, please! people. >> no! >> it's all about licking your plate. >> the food is just fabulous. >> i should be in psychoanalysis for the amount of money i spend in restaurants. >> i had a horrible experience. >> i don't even think we were at the same restaurant. >> and everybody, i'm sure, saved room for those desserts.