Nobody knew these two were in love, until after the fact. But their passionate affair impacted both of their lives more than they let on. Although their relationship did not last, their love for each other always did. Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno.
Marlon spotted Rita first: he saw the 22-year old on the cover of Life Magazine in 1954. The caption read: Rita Moreno: An Actress’ Catalog of Sex and Innocence. He was immediately taken with the Latin beauty who was just starting out in Hollywood. Marlon was seven years older than her and he was already an established Hollywood star with films like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One under his belt. For publicity purposes, Rita was asked to visit Marlon on the set of his new film Désirée that same year. Rita later admitted that she had never really thought about Marlon Brando. But when she stepped into his dressing room and Marlon looked at her, she felt her body temperature skyrocket. Their attraction was instant.
Marlon pursued her via telephone afterwards and they would talk on the phone for hours. After their first date, they quickly spent all their free time together. Their relationship was passionate and fiery. Rita later said in her memoir: ‘To say that he was a great lover—sensual, generous, delightfully inventive—would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul’. The roles in the relationship were clearly marked: Marlon was loving and tender, but he would also scold her for talking to loudly in a restaurant. He gave her books to read and taught her about manners. Rita was completely devoted to him, but she was also able to ‘read’ him like nobody else could. She could always tell when he was lying, except about one thing: women.
Marlon was a known womanizer. He obsessively pursued women and some claim he was a sex-addict. In his memoir he attributed this compulsion to being deserted by both his mother and nanny as a child. It made him unable to trust women and he would destroy relationships before they destroyed him. His inability to be faithful created an on-again, off- again relationship with Rita. This lasted eight years and during this time Marlon married two other women and had children with them. Still, Marlon and Rita always came back to each other. His first wife Anna once even remarked that she knew he preferred Rita over her. Rita later admitted that winning him back over and over again became a thrill. A proven way to do this was to make him jealous. She even dated Elvis because she knew it would drive Marlon crazy.
But things came to a head when, after all those years of this on-and-off relationship, Rita became pregnant. She hoped that Marlon would marry her and they could be a family. To her surprise Marlon was stern and arranged for an abortion. He did not even pick her up afterwards, but sent a friend to do it. The abortion was not done well and Rita had to be rushed to the hospital where the baby was removed. What hurt Rita even more was that Marlon’s only response was that he wanted the money back from the abortionist. Afterwards, Marlon left to film Mutiny on the Bounty in 1961. While there he fell in love with his co-star Tarita and they began a relationship. Still, as soon as he came back to Hollywood, he called Rita to come over.
While waiting for him in his house, Rita felt the pain and humiliation of the past eight years more and more. She hated herself for putting up with him and running back to him, but she could not stand the idea of being without him. The fact that he had children with two other women, but had insisted on her having an abortion, pained her and made her feel worthless. The next morning, after spending the night with Marlon, she took a handful of his sleeping pills. Marlon’s assistant found her just in time.
After that, Rita vowed not to be in that position again. Marlon said she made the ‘sharpest right turn’ he had ever witnessed. Her therapist, who was recommended to her by Marlon, told her she should not see Marlon again because it would kill her. Rita and Marlon both agreed to sever ties.
Rita and Marlon did not see or speak to each other for two years. They ran into each other for the first time again in august 1963, during the March on Washington. Rita later said that she immediately felt that familiar heat flush through her body and that she felt embarrassed. She had not just been in love with him, but he had been an obsession for her and it took a long time for her to heal. In 1962 Marlon had married his co-star Tarita and in 1965 Rita married cardiologist Leonard Gordon. By then Marlon reached out to both Rita and her new husband and they all became friends. In 1968 Marlon asked Rita to co-star as his lover in The Night of the Following Day. Filming was troubled and the fight scene between the two in bed was not scripted.
No matter how troubled their relationship had been, Rita and Marlon always kept in touch. They would speak on the phone and Rita would invite him over to the occasional dinner party. When trying to put together an autobiography, Marlon encouraged the writer to speak to Rita since she knew him so well. Rita later said in her own autobiography that Marlon would call her up in his final years to tell her he missed her. Rita never stopped wearing the same perfume as Marlon (Vent Vert by Balmain). But Rita was married and Marlon had a complicated life filled with wives and mistresses. The last time Rita and Marlon saw each other was in 2003, when she stayed at his house because she was shooting a pilot nearby. It is now a sad memory for Rita, as they barely spent any time together and when they tried to kiss goodbye, Marlon’s by now obese body got in the way. Marlon passed away in 2004. Rita released a memoir in 2013 in which she called him one of the two loves of her life (the other being her husband).