SCENE: A Tale of Two Survivors

BY DAVID NOH | The ever-vibrant Rita Moreno, who remains the only Puerto Rican to have won an Oscar, for “West Side Story,” and has also snagged a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy, is back at Feinstein's at the Regency with her show, “Little Tributes,” but through April 5 only.

Moreno still keeps her apartment near Lincoln Center (“I could never give up New York”) but lives in Berkeley, California, where, with the Berkeley Repertory Theater, she can satisfy her stage cravings without the grueling Broadway schedule that would take her away from her beloved grandchildren.

Rita Moreno's moxie is undimmed; Marianne Faithfull's fortitude is legend.

She recently performed as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” and also did a “Master Class” that was so impressive that Lincoln Center Library filmed it, a rare example of a regional production being included in its archive, along with the original show.

“My act is really a tribute to a lot of the composers I love,” she told me, “which ends up being a lot of Broadway stuff. My specialty is always picking what wasn't necessarily the big hit number. I do a tribute to Peggy Lee, who is actually my goddess, also Harold Arlen and Truman Capote from 'House of Flowers,' but not 'A Sleeping Bee,' something from 'Applause,' and 'Sunset Boulevard,' but not 'With One Look.'”

Moreno as Anita in “West Side Story” is, of course, indelibly implanted in every moviegoer's mind and she gleefully took me through Oscar night, 1962.

“I was doing a World War II B-movie ['Cry of Battle'] in Manila. I was back to doing the same crap again, playing a Filipina guerilla girl in the army. It was so depressing and then I got nominated, to my amazement. So when the time came, I flew in to LA. They literally gave me only two days off, which was a shame as I missed all the great hoopla that happens after you win – the flowers, telegrams, phone calls – all that attention which to this day I feel so robbed of.

“George Chakiris, who remains a great friend, and I were each other's dates. On the way to the theater we were making up 'sour grapes speeches' in case we didn't win – 'Oh, I know she slept with him…' – making up these terrible stories. Up until 'Titanic,' our film set records for the most awards, just piling them up.

“George was the first to win and I didn't come until very near the end of the program, which was just breaking me, the suspense was hideous. And then I got it, and I remembered when my name was called, saying to myself, 'Don't run to the stage, it's not dignified. If the applause stops before you get there, so what.' But the applause didn't stop because the movie was such the favorite.

“My speech was the shortest in Oscar history, the shortest and most uninspiring speech, but what can I say, I'm stuck with it. I just said, 'I can't believe it!' and then there's a pause and I was trying to think of something to say and I just repeated, 'I just can't believe this,' and there was one more time to think of something and I said, 'I leave you with that!' It really is an out-of-body moment and even though you're almost certain you don't have a chance because so-and-so is the hot contender, you should have something in your head.

“The funniest part was that Joan Crawford was co-hosting that night and she had her Pepsi-cola cooler in her dressing room, filled with vodka, and the lady was bombed. I went into the wings and only then did I burst into tears. And she grabbed me, and there was one lone photographer in the wings, not in the press room, and she put her arms around me and pressed my face to her chest while he was taking pictures. She was built like a linebacker and I couldn't get out of her grasp. She kept saying, 'There, there dear, don't feel bad!' And I kept saying, 'I don't feel bad! I don't feel bad!' And the photographer kept saying, “Oh, Miss Crawford we need to see Rita's face!' 'But the poor dear is upset,' she said, and in my muffled voice I kept saying, 'I'm not upset!'

“Finally the man came to get me, and they had to wrest me out of her hold and take me to the press room. The best part is a week later, in Manila, I get this note in her famous blue stationary: 'Darling Rita' – I never met the woman in my life – 'how generous and kind of you to come visit me in my dressing room'- we weren't in her dressing room, we were in the wings – 'at the most important moment in your life. How dear and sweet of you. Love, Joan.'”

“That's my funny story but the sad story of that night was that at the Governor's Ball, Natalie [Wood] never came over to say hello or congratulations. Wasn't that odd? I was very hurt and astonished. We'd gotten along during the filming although we weren't best friends. In fairness to her, she was kind of cool to most of us, but she was certainly never rude. I read her biography and I didn't realize what a really sad life she had.

“My friend, actress Liz Torres, told me the most wonderful story, which always makes me teary. She was living in Spanish Harlem, which is a very noisy place, and she said, 'It was no different Oscar night. But when the Best Supporting Actress category came up, that whole neighborhood suddenly just shut up. And when your name was called out, there was such cheering and whistling and people yelling at each other through windows: She won!' Isn't that marvelous?”

In 1964, Marianne Faithfull sang, “I sit and watch as tears go by.” Now, 44 years later, in the film “Irina Palm” (Quad Cinema), as a London sex worker, she sits and watches erect penises slide through a glory hole, ready for her to masturbate them to orgasm. It's a shocker of a role, but then Faithfull's entire life and career have been ones of well-publicized risk, including scandal, suicide attempts, drugs, and breast cancer.

“Even though I'm not a gay man, I was very aware of what a glory hole is,” she said on the phone from Paris in that voice which could be described as a caressing, tobacco-stained velvet croak. “Yeah, yeah, it's a crossover, isn't it? For those scenes, we used dildos. It was really disgusting, but not as bad as the real thing, I guess. I don't think it's a fun job. [Director] Sam Gabarski never showed a real penis. It's not a dirty movie and that's the whole point or I wouldn't have done it. Are you kidding?”

Her publicist warned me not to ask any personal questions, but Faithfull can't help but divulge, as when I mentioned that her “Girl on a Motorcycle” (1968) has been enjoying a cable TV revival. “I had no idea,” she said. “I personally never liked it although I liked [director] Jack Cardiff very much. He was very good but I could never bear to watch it. It's sort of like a Harley Davidson ad, isn't it? And I didn't like the experience of being a starlet.”

Asked what that entailed, she answered, “You have to fuck the lead. And I didn't want to.”

I brought up the fact that her leading man was Alain Delon, perhaps the world's handsomest male, and she responded, “I really loved him in the Visconti movies, but he's not my type. I was very busy anyway, with Mick [Jagger] and I had another lover. So he was not for me and I think I was really right because he wasn't very nice to work with.”

As for “Lucifer Rising” (1972), her notorious Kenneth Anger movie, she said, “That was difficult. I'm not really at all into black magic. It seemed very interesting and I'm not going to put him down, but it's not really my scene. I kind of wish I hadn't done it, and don't think I would have if I hadn't been on drugs.”

Faithfull was pleased when I told her that everyone I knew cited “Broken English” as a favorite record when I told them I was interviewing her: “It's a great record. I know that. Thank you. But I love all my records and I'm really into my next record, 'Easy Come Easy Go,' which comes out in September. I haven't worked with [producer] Hal Wilner for 20 years, since 'Strange Weather,' and we just finished it in New York. It's completely different from 'Strange Weather,' and I'm very happy with it. There are no original songs on it because I think I've almost tapped into everything I've got to say about life, love, loss and heartache.”

She was just 17 when she sang “As Tears Go By,” and said, “Instant international success was quite a shock. I was very naïve. One minute I was at school and I was quite bright and planned to go to university, maybe drama school, and have a completely different kind of life. And the next minute I was on tour with the Hollies.

“You talk about my distinctive voice, but to me, it's just my voice. I don't hear it like you do, but it's served me very well and it's served other things very well. Sophia Coppola I think used it very well in 'Marie Antoinette.' I'm very glad I've got it. I try not to get sick and I use oil of sandal and I put lavender essential oil in my nostrils at night.

“And I smoke – shocking, I know, sh-h-h! I think I would have had this timbre without it, anyway, and I really should stop but just can't seem to.”


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