March 14, 1943 – Anita Rose Morris
One of my favorite films of the 1980s, Aria (1987) is a British anthology that consists of ten short films by ten different directors, each showing the director’s choice of visual accompaniment to one or more operatic arias. There is little or no dialogue from the actors, with most words coming from the libretto of the operas in Italian, French, or German. The directors include some of my top filmmakers: Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Bill Bryden, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge, and Julien Temple.
Much-loved film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
I am not sure that any indispensable statement about opera has been made here, and purists will no doubt recoil at the irreverence of some of the images. But the film is fun almost as a satire of itself, as a project in which the tension between the directors and their material allows them to poke a little fun at their own styles and obsessions. You could almost call Aria the first MTV version of opera.
The 14-minute Rigoletto, with music by Giuseppe Verdi, is a bedroom farce set at the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo, in which a movie producer cheats on his wife with a fluttery German starlet while unaware that his spouse is also there in the inn with a hunky lover of her own. The finale is a dance routine to La Donna è Mobile sung by an Elvis impersonator. Directed by Temple, it stars Buck Henry, Beverly D’Angelo and a steamy, funny Anita Morris.
Morris was nominated for a 1982 Tony Award for her exuberant performance as a brassy redhead in black-lace body stocking in the musical Nine. Her big musical number in Nine was Call From The Vatican, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, it caused controversy when CBS censors decided it was too risqué and banished it from the Tony Awards telecast.
In the number, Carla (Morris), a mistress of the famous Italian film director Guido, played by the great Raul Julia, got through to her lover when he was on a movie set by pretending that her telephone call was from the Vatican. Dancing on a pedestal, she proceeded to woo him by telephone. Frank Rich, then critic for The New York Times, called the number “a dazzling choreographic gem. Morris superbly executes a one-body simulation of two-body copulation.”
Morris lost the Tony that year to Liliane Montevecchi, also in Nine. 21 years later, Jane Krakowski won the Tony Award playing Carla in a revival with Antonio Banderas.
Morris was working on the George Lucas produced film, Radioland Murders (1994) when cancer was discovered. Set in 1939, it pays homage to the screwball comedy films of the 1930s. The film stars an ecliptic ensemble cast including: Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Michael McKean, Bobcat Goldthwait, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Lloyd, Billy Barty and Rosemary Clooney, with the dubious distinction of being the final film for both Morris and George Burns.
Morris, who was born in Durham, North Carolina., studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began her performing career in the American Mime Theater. An appearance in the chorus of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972 led to roles on Broadway in Seesaw (1973) and The Magic Show (1974), in which she was directed by her husband, the talented Grover Dale. Morris subsequently took over several leading roles on Broadway, including in Sugar Babies in 1980 and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas in 1981. There is no shame in being a Broadway replacement, Ginger Rogers did it, so did Reba McEntire, Mandy Patinkin, and Ethel Merman.
Morris also worked in film and television. She played the mistress of Danny DeVito‘s character in Ruthless People (1986) with Bette Midler, and she had roles in The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), Absolute Beginners (1986), and the lead in A Sinful Life (1985).
Her husband Dale’s Broadway stage debut was in Li’l Abner (1956) as a dancer. He appeared in the original cast of West Side Story (1957) and in Greenwillow (1960) with Anthony Perkins. Dale and Perkins had a love affair that lasted a decade.
Dale was nominated for the Tony Award twice: For his choreography for Billy (1969) for his direction of The Magic Show. He also received an Emmy Award nomination for his choreography for Barry Manilow‘s 1985 television musical Copacabana. For Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, he shared the Best Director Tony Award with the famed director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. In 1992 he became publisher/editor of Dance Magazine.
In 1972, in response to an ad Dale had placed seeking dancers for the Lenox Arts Center, Morris sent a bizarre picture of herself in a white plastic mask and black leotard, in a back bend with her arms on the floor. Dale:
There were two piles of dancers’ photographs on my desk, a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’,’and my hand was on its way to the ‘no’ pile when it stopped. I had to meet this person and see who the fuck would do this. A week later she shows, this stunning redheaded beauty and literally my life was changed in a second, like with my dance angel. I never identified as bisexual, I always just said I’m gay, but I just happened to fall in love with a woman, and she wasn’t my first. I never went to bed with Liza Minnelli, but we were well on our way, if I could have just gotten her husband, Peter Allen, off my back.
It was the 1960s and Tony and I lived together but never went out to restaurants together. I met Anita when I was with Tony. I remember driving into the parking lot of the Arts Center and she was standing there, and when she saw me, she had that look of when a three-year-old looks at you and just runs to you. No one had ever done that, and I was like, ‘Dear God’, and that was the beginning. We had our son, Badge, in 1978.
I left Tony and then he met Berry Berenson, and we all got married within three weeks of each other. Everyone we knew thought we were insane, that we had some kind of agenda with these two women, and we all lived together in the same house for a while in Chelsea on 21st Street. We took the garden apartment and they were in the main part of the house. Our families got together on certain occasions. They were very social, so it was a regular thing to go to their LA house and hang out.
Perkins died of AIDS in 1992, gone at 60; Morris was taken cancer in 1994 at just 50-years-old; and Berenson perished aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on 9/11, murder at 53-years-old, making Dale the sole survivor of this intriguing romantic entanglement.
Anita’s death was devastating, and it took me five years before I saw anybody, a lot of healing. It never occurred to me that she would go before me. I was nine years older and it was something I needed to go through, having never dealt with losing somebody like that.