Cinequest Guide 2016

Cinequest Maverick: Rita Moreno

Cinequest recognizes veteran actress Rita Moreno

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari

STILL GOT IT: 'Since I can't play spitfires anymore, I'm playing a spitfire grandma,' says Maverick Spirit Award winner Rita Moreno

If there's anyone who understands what's lost when diversity is stymied, it's Cinequest Maverick award winner Rita Moreno. She's going strong in her 80s, even after a career of fighting off racial stereotyping—the studios even cast her as a Jivaro once. One of the few "EGOTs" (a winner of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), Ms. Moreno lives in the East Bay to be close to her daughter.

Her new film at Cinequest is Remember Me. "Made right here in Berkeley," she says via telephone from her home. Though Moreno hasn't seen the film, she is confident it will move audiences to laughter. "Utterly funny, funny as hell. Since I can't play spitfires anymore, I'm playing a spitfire grandma, cranky and potty-mouthed. She's very opinionated and doesn't mince words, which has always been my true character anyway."

Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno learned dancing from Rita Hayworth's paternal uncle Taco Cansino. Contracted to MGM, she was on hand for two of the best musicals made in Hollywood, both regularly revived—first, a small part in Singing In The Rain; second, and the larger, an Oscar-winning role in West Side Story.

Moreno didn't know she was working on a pair of classics when she acted in them. "Singing in the Rain is one of my favorite movies ever—a brilliant spoof," she says. "But it just seemed like one more delicious MGM musical at the time. West Side Story was all guts and blood and passion and tears. What was really funny about West Side Story is that, while I thought it was brilliant, I was convinced nobody was going to see it. They wanted five dollars a ticket for the roadshow engagement. Five dollars! I couldn't believe it."

The actress even went so far as to tell her co-star George Chakiris that she thought it would fail. "Here's a film musical, no spangles, no tap dancing, no pizazz in the costumes, and girls singing in a high operatic voices," she recalls telling Chakiris. "I successfully managed to depress him."

One of her favorite roles is The Ritz (1976), a role she'd originated on Broadway. Moreno suggests that the film's director, Richard Lester, didn't think the material was that funny, but even the YouTube clip of Moreno's Googie is as hilarious now as it was 40 years back.

A spot of context: The Ritz is modeled on the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the basement of NYC's Ansonia Hotel, popularly but incorrectly supposed to have been closed by the AIDS epidemic. (The real culprit, as in the death of so many NYC attractions, was an overdose of bridge and tunnel people.) Many cabaret stars played there, but Bette Midler made her mark singing over the noise of a prop waterfall at the baths.

Moreno commented that there's nothing funnier than actors trying to keep a straight face during a performance. Yet there's something heavenly about a performer with plenty of exuberance and moxie failing totally on stage. Moreno's Googie massacres "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy, peeling down to a halter top and briefs, sending a high-heeled shoe flying and a wig slipping; she's a star so dazzled by her own radiance that she's blind to the wincing of her band.

Of the outrageously accented Googie Gomez, Moreno says, "I hiccupped and out she came. Dancers do two things when they get off stage. One is light up a cigarette, which is insane. The other thing is to try to crack each other up. I used to do the Googie voice to recite Shakespeare: 'Speak trippingly, I pray joo.' I still do her for very specific fundraiser and HIV Aids benefits."

One little mark of the quality Moreno's dancing is that her striptease here is as uproarious as her number in Marlowe (1969) is dead serious exotic dancing. Moreno is the femme fatale who almost gets the detective killed. No James Garner fan should miss it—"a gorgeous hunk of man, he was just like you saw him in the movies," Moreno recalls. In the movie she has her first meeting with Garner's Philip Marlowe in a penthouse: the detective cracks, "Dolores. That name means 'sorrow.' Well, you picked a nice place to suffer."

While looking forward to the Oscars—Moreno was all for Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road ("one of the most, imaginative movies ever seen, so creative and spectacular, and I love Charlize Thereon" )—she still sympathizes with the #Oscarsowhite boycott.

"I agree that it is too much of a white person's club, and that it's been a white person's club for years and years," she says. "I'm glad that's had some light brought to it, because of what Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. More power to the people who just decided to do something about it. It was inevitable, somebody was going to say something about it. I think Americans suffer from secret racism, and they're less ashamed lately about their biases."

Rita Moreno

Mar 5, 7pm, $20

California Theatre, San Jose

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari