Why Rita Moreno chose to wear her Pitoy gown at the Oscars again
LOS ANGELES—“Well, let’s see, I was there (in Manila) in ’62 because ’62 was when I came to America to attend the Oscars,” Rita Moreno began when we asked her recently how the late great Filipino designer Pitoy Moreno created the gold and black gown that she originally wore when she won the Academy best supporting actress for “West Side Story.”
The fabulous member of EGOT—that elite group of only 12 talents who have won all four major American entertainment awards—Emmy, Grammy, Oscars and Tony—wore Pitoy’s dress again to the Academy Awards last March. That Rita looked stunning on the red carpet in a gown she wore to the Oscars more than half a century ago—56 years, to be specific—made her the belle of the ball and stirred immense buzz in news and social media.
“I was in Manila some time during ’62 and we made an American film called, oh gosh I can’t remember,” Rita admitted, as she sipped a glass of white wine at the Bordeaux Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. The legendary actress looked casual chic in a glittery beret, white blouse, and white and blue pants, which she accented with green earrings and a blue necklace. “You know, 86 (her age) is wonderful but it sucks when you try to remember stuff (laughs). Not thrilling.”
The Puerto Rico native continued, “When I was nominated, I thought, oh my God, what am I going to do for a gown? I have no idea. There were a lot of people who were suggesting names to me and Pitoy’s name came up all the time. So I went to him and I said, ‘I’ve been nominated. I would love to have you make something for me.’
“I told him what I wanted. The gown had a different top at the time—it had a bateau which was the neckline of the year. I called it the Audrey Hepburn neckline. When he showed me that fabric (obi, traditionally used to make Japanese kimonos), I said, ‘Let’s not get fancy. Let’s just show the beauty of this astonishing piece of fabric.’”
What was remarkable was that the dress by Asia’s Fashion Czar has been in Rita’s closet for many decades.
The stage and screen icon was surprised at the tremendous response that Pitoy’s gown—which she varied a bit by making the top strapless—elicited. Even The New York Times devoted a feature and proclaimed, “Recycling has never been more elegant.” The dress got maximum exposure because Rita presented the best foreign language film award to Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman.”
“I wore that gown because it was the 90th anniversary of the Oscars, a very auspicious occasion,” Rita explained. “And I wore the dress that was very auspicious for me (because she won an Oscar in it). The other thing was, I didn’t want to buy another gown.
“Then it was my daughter (Fernanda Luisa Fisher) who watched the [Oscars] rehearsal the day before and gave me the idea. She said, ‘Mom, you don’t see it but they do a piece of you singing ‘America’ (from ‘West Side Story’) and the film freezes. Why don’t you wear that dress?’ It was her idea. And that apparently made an impression.”
Apparently, a famous designer’s loss was the late Pitoy’s gain. “I called a very famous designer whose work I love. They were not rude but they were like, ‘Well, I don’t know, he’s very busy right now.’”
Asked how many clothes she has in her closet, Rita answered, ‘Oh, I have a lot of clothes because I’m a greedy little bitch … ”
When we told Rita that Pitoy passed away last January, she said, “He passed away just about a month before I wore the gown. How sad.”
In her 80s, Rita is still very active. In Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” which topbills Justina Machado, Rita plays Lydia
Riera, the colorful matriarch of a Cuban-American family.
TV icon Norman Lear remakes his own sitcom that ran in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Rita insisted that her grandma character be sexy. Before accepting the role, she set one condition in a phone conference with her agent, Norman and his two head writers. “I said to Norman, ‘I just have to say something. There’s one condition that I’m going to ask for and if you can’t provide that, I don’t want to do the role.’
“‘I’m playing 77 which is hilarious. I want her to be a sexual person.’ Suddenly they said, ‘Yes! What a great idea.’ I said, ‘Being 77 or 86 doesn’t mean everything turns to dust down there.’”
“Retire” is not in this octogenarian’s vocabulary. “I’m doing what I love most in the world and I’m getting paid for it. I keep seeing myself appearing in some stage show on roller skates or something. I just saw Dick Van Dyke last night at the Geffen Playhouse. I was giving a tribute to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I did it in rap. I rapped my way through that. Lin-Manuel said it was insane.
“My life has taken an incredible turn in the last couple of years. I’m so grateful.”
E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.
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