Aspen Ideas Festival: Resident artists Rita Moreno and Edmund de Waal on their lives and work
Rita Moreno almost quit the cast of “West Side Story” over a lyric disparaging Puerto Rico, she recalled this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
“After I got the role, which I desperately wanted, I suddenly realized that a verse in ‘America’ goes ‘Puerto Rico, ugly island/Island of tropical diseases,’” she said during a session Wednesday. “I realized, ‘I can’t sing that. I can’t do this.’”
The lyric had been included in the original 1957 Broadway production. Before filming, as Moreno prepared to quit the project, lyricist Stephen Sondheim changed it to “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion/Let it sink back into the ocean.”
Moreno, now 87 and serving as an Aspen Institute artist-in-residence for 2019, told the story in an on-stage interview with Michael Eisner. The conversation detailed her early career and her experiences in what’s often called the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Of Oscar night in 1962, when she took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy for “West Side Story,” she recalled Rock Hudson calling her name, trying to play it cool on the way to the stage and giving a famously short acceptance speech (“I don’t believe it, good Lord. I leave you with that.”)
In the wings afterward, she recalled a drunken Joan Crawford holding her in a tight and extended embrace.
“They had to wrest me from her grip to get me into the green room,” she said with a laugh.
Moreno is among the few performers to achieve the EGOT, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She playfully corrected Eisner, however, noting that she is actually a “KPEGOT,” having also earned a Kennedy Center Honor and Peabody Award.
But the years after “West Side Story” were trying, she said. Despite winning Hollywood’s biggest prize, the only roles studios would consider her for called for dark make-up and cartoonish accents. She asked her agent to submit her for parts that would show off her full range as an actress, but she was shut out.
“They wouldn’t even see me,” she recalled. “The producers, the directors, the writers, they wouldn’t even see me. … They’d say, ‘Oh no, she’s too Hispanic.’”
So she went into what she called a “self-exile” for seven years, doing “anything but films” and working instead on television and on the stage, where she was allowed to play the roles she wanted.
The period following “West Side Story” also included the traumatic experience of dating Marlon Brando.
“I attempted to end my life because of Marlon,” she said. “I was with him for eight years on and off. We had a very tempestuous relationship.”
Asked about the #MeToo movement and her experiences with predatory men in Hollywood, Moreno recalled being stalked by 20th Century Fox production head Buddy Adler and being abused by a litany of powerful men.
“They were terrible to me,” she said, sharing a harrowing story of going to an afternoon cocktail party in Bel Air in the late 1950s, where Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn attempted to force himself on her. Another executive pulled her away, appearing to rescue her, only to attempt the same. She ran out of the home, planning to walk the 20 miles home to Culver City. Outside, she appealed to the mansion’s Mexican gardeners for help.
“I got in their pickup truck and they took me home,” she recalled. “Those were the only gentlemen I saw that day.”
Moreno had moved with her family to New York City from Puerto Rico at age 5. But even before they left the island, she knew she’d be a performer.
“It started with grandpa, abuelito, putting on records,” she recalled. “And I’d shake my little booty and make him very happy — to see him laughing and clapping his hands, I thought, ‘This is nice.’ I loved the attention.”
The only English she knew was “good morning to you.” But a dancer friend of her mother’s noted that Moreno showed serious talent, and her mother took her to a dance teacher at age 7.
At age 13, an audition led to a role on Broadway in the short-lived drama “Skydrift,” in a cast that included the legendary Eli Wallach. Moreno recalled how boring the play was, and how she watched the audience squirm. To break the tedium during a dinner scene, Moreno recalled, she made a slurping sound to make the audience laugh. One castmate did not appreciate the gesture.
“She held me by the scruff of my neck and said, ‘If you ever dare to so such a thing again I will find out about it, I will find you and I will kill you!’” she recalled. “That’s my first experience with theater. I didn’t understand. I thought I was helping.”
A talent scout spotted her in a dance recital and Moreno was soon moving with her family to Culver City, California, to start a career in movies, with a seven-year contract with MGM.
Being on the studio lot as a kid was a dream come true.
“It was the first time I saw stars,” she said. “Clark Gable walks in. Elizabeth Taylor walks in. I just about passed out.”
Of her early forays into activism, Moreno recalled the March on Washington in 1963 and the “extraordinary afternoon” when she was among a handful of stars to share the stage with Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech. Moreno recalled watching singer Mahalia Jackson yelling to King to discard his prepared remarks and “tell them about the dream!”
“He discards his prepared speech and goes into the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Moreno recalled. “I was never the same after that. That really politicized me in a way that I can’t describe to you. … I get goosebumps every time I talk about this.”
Moreno is soon to begin filming her supporting part in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” of which she also is an executive producer, bringing her career full-circle.
“It’s an extraordinary experience,” she said.
EDMUND DE WAAL’S ‘LIBRARY OF EXILE’
Moreno’s fellow artist-in-resident at the Aspen Institute for 2019 is the British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal, who took the Ideas stage Tuesday to discuss his work with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.
De Waal is a renowned British sculptor, ceramicist and author of the contemporary classic memoir “The Hare with Amber Eyes” about his once-prosperous European family having all of their property, and all but a small portion of their art collection, taken by the Nazis.
Gopnik noted that de Waal is among the rare breed of artists who are masters in two forms. De Waal said his work in both ceramics and in literature goes back to his earliest memories.
“It was always clay, always books, always poetry — the two things nudging each other all the time — one taking priority and then the other thing coming back,” he said, recalling his first pottery class at age 5 in Lincoln with his father.
In the age of conceptual art’s dominance over craft, where many or most major artists don’t personally make their art objects, de Waal still uses his own hand for his works, whether it’s a household pot or one of his massive installations.
“I still make my pots and it seems weird to have to say that,” de Waal said.
He is currently at work on two installations in Venice, one of which is an ambitious piece he’s calling “Library of Exile.”
The project will collect some 3,000 books — works “from Ovid to present day writers” — by authors who have been displaced. The pavilion is housed in a porcelain sculpture by de Waal that is inscribed with his written history of destroyed libraries.
“It’s a huge thing for me,” de Waal said. “It’s me thinking about migration and refugees, it’s about how books and languages work, it’s about my life as a potter.”
The library will open in Venice, on the site of the city’s 16th-century Jewish ghetto. From there, de Waal is taking it to sites of destroyed libraries throughout world history. It will stop in Dresden and at the British Museum in London before de Waal brings it to its permanent home in Mosul, Iraq. The terrorist group ISIS destroyed the university library there in 2014 after taking control of the city.
“The whole idea is that it will be the foundation for a new library in Mosul,” de Waal explained.
On the divisive battle over Brexit in his homeland, de Waal said he was baffled by Brexit and the support among his countrymen to leave Europe.
“This painful moment of dispossession that’s going on, the British attempt to dispossess from Europe, is so unreal to me,” he said. “The whole of Britain is created by the endless migration of people coming and coming and coming. To me it feels like really bad storytelling.”
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