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CRITIC AT LARGE

A Specialist in Survival

November 17, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It is an old, hard truth that the most difficult of the Hollywood arts is survival. Longevity is as elusive as the Oscar. In recognition of this truth, the survivors earn a grudging admiration from their colleagues even if it is clear their victories have been won with hobnail boots and machetes.

"The Closed Set," the last of the "Tales From the Hollywood Hills" series on "Great Performances," can be seen Friday at 9 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 24. It is a portrait, etched with razor blades, of a screen queen surviving, circa 1956.

The portrayer, who at 57 has herself survived on talent and energy without recourse to lethal weapons, is Rita Moreno.

The Julie Forbes she plays is a schemer, a screamer, a seductress, a scene-grabber, a manipulator, a no-holds-untried competitor. But, interestingly enough, she also has insecurity covering her like body makeup. She is ruthless but not insensitive or, paradoxically, uncaring about the wounds--presumably temporary--she leaves in her wake.

It's a remarkable characterization, based on one of the stories from Gavin Lambert's 1959 collection "The Slide Area," adapted by Ellen M. Violett and directed by Mollie Miller.

Moreno, who lives in Los Angeles with her physician husband Leonard Gordon and their daughter Fernanda Luisa, a graduate student in drama at USC, says she had no trouble getting to know Julie Forbes.

"You only have to take your own actor's insecurities and behave the way you'd like to--if you weren't a nice person. The envy would be the same, the fears, the ruthlessness."

It's the kind of histrionic role that allows the actress to let it all out, or almost all. "It's fun to play flamboyant," Moreno says. "On the other hand, you can't just be the Wicked Witch of the West. Marlon (Brando, with whom she co-starred in "The Night of the Following Day" in 1969) told me that the great thing about playing wicked is that you don't play wicked. You don't admit you're wicked. Nobody says, 'I'm a villain.' "

Thinking about 1956 as period was a bit of a jolt. "That's not a period, that's my life ," Moreno says. She had emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York at the age of 5 with her mother, started dance lessons at 6 and made her Broadway debut at 13 in "Skydrift," which starred Eli Wallach.

She was 17 when L. B. Mayer himself signed her to an MGM contract, under which she made a number of forgettable films, before she was Tuptim in "The King and I." She survived and grew, and has become a versatile actress as well as a singer and dancer.

Moreno, in fact, has an Oscar (for Anita in "West Side Story"), a Tony (for Googie Gomez in "The Ritz"), a Grammy (for a children's album) and two Emmys (for appearances on "The Muppets" and "The Rockford Files"). "I was born to be a Muppet," she remarked not long ago.

These days she does frequent pop concerts as fund-raisers for financially embattled symphonies, San Diego most recently. That one fell during the frantic two weeks when she was shooting "The Closed Set."

She dashed from the location to the airport to the concert hall to a hotel for a couple of hours' sleep to the airport to the next day's location. "I told the cinematographer, 'If I look my age, you're dead.' But it was fine; I'm good at second and third winds."

She does her one-woman show at casinos, conventions and auditoriums, mostly one-nighters that make her a frequent flyer who hopes to become a less frequent flyer in the new year. Meantime, she has also taped an Ice Capades special that will be seen on ABC Dec. 29. She works with skaters but doesn't skate. "My armpits were on fire from all the lifts," she says.

In "The Closed Set," Moreno as Forbes, her career slipping like most of the movies as television closes in like a striding giant, is taken in hand by a young director and writer (Jeff Perry and Gabriel Damon) who hope to engineer a comeback for her in a more realistic movie, based on a fading star much like herself.

The mogul (Harold Gould) prefers the mixture as before, sheer starry fantasy. Writer and director are left to ponder, quite philosophically, the ways of survival.

In its economical, hourlong way, "The Closed Set" is a compact metaphor for the Hollywood of the 1950s, caught in the dead zone between pre-television and post-television and no longer confident about what worked, or who, or why, but still persuaded that flamboyant ladies like Julie Forbes surely still had something to offer.

You have the feeling that Julie's new-old film is going to go over like a lead balloon, despite the hoopla on the marquee. But Rita Moreno is something to see, and maybe Julie Forbes was, too.

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