“Born Rosita Dolores Alverio in the idyll of Puerto Rico, Moreno, at age five, embarked on a harrowing sea voyage with her mother and wound up in the harsh barrios of the Bronx, where she discovered dancing, singing, and acting as ways to escape a tumultuous childhood. Making her Broadway debut by age thirteen–and moving on to Hollywood in its Golden Age just a few years later–she worked alongside such stars as Gary Cooper, Yul Brynner, and Ann Miller.
When discovered by Louis B. Mayer of MGM, the wizard himself declared: “She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” Cast by Gene Kelly as Zelda Zanders in Singin’ in the Rain and then on to her Oscar-winning performance in West Side Story, she catapulted to fame–yet found herself repeatedly typecast as the “utility ethnic,” a role she found almost impossible to elude.
Here, for the first time, Rita reflects on her struggles to break through Hollywood’s racial and sexual barriers. She explores the wounded little girl behind the glamorous facade–and what it took to find her place in the world. She talks candidly about her relationship with Elvis Presley, her encounters with Howard Hughes, and the passionate romance with Marlon Brando that drove her to attempt suicide. And she shares the illusiveness of a “perfect” marriage and the incomparable joys of motherhood.”
I was first introduced to Rita Moreno’s incredible work in 1987, when I was in 9th grade, when we were studying Romeo and Juliet in English class. My teacher had us act out the play, then she let us watch Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (Amazon) starring the luminous Olivia Hussey, and then she had us watch West Side Story (Amazon), the modern retelling of the story. At the time, I fell in love with Natalie Wood as Maria, even though she wasn’t a Latina, but I was absolutely floored by Anita as played by Rita Moreno. Then my teacher mentioned that Moreno was also on The Electric Company, which was my jam after I outgrew Sesame Street.
I just got done with the PBS documentary Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It! (Netflix) (Amazon) and found that Moreno is a master storyteller. I was entranced by her story. At one point, there was some B-roll of Moreno signing copies of this book, which I had no idea existed until then, so I automatically went to Amazon and found it and bought it; I just had to know more about Moreno and her life and struggles and successes.
As a privileged white girl growing up in the American Midwest, I was worried that I couldn’t relate to Moreno’s odyssey, from Puerto Rican immigrant to an elite EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). But the important thing to remember is that Ms. Moreno is a performer of the highest caliber and tells her story with expert strokes. There wasn’t a moment I wasn’t interested in her story. She really knows how to weave a tale.
Did you know Rita Moreno was in Singin’ in the Rain? Or The King and I? Neither did I. Moreno laments about her years at MGM playing “the ethnic girl”: anytime the studio needed someone who wasn’t white, they used Moreno, often applying thick dark makeup over her entire body, expertly applying face and hair makeup so she could look like a variety of ethnic persuasions. She hated every minute of it, but she also knew she needed the work, so she stuck with it.
When Moreno was cast in West Side Story, she was in her glory. Yet, despite winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for the role, she didn’t work in film for another seven years because she didn’t want to play the ethnic girl anymore.
I did not know that Rita was in a relationship for about a decade with Marlon Brando. I’ve never been a Brando fan, but I get that he was a great actor in his prime. But he was a crappy human being, and the fact that Moreno stuck with him so long was a bit surprising. She’s such a strong human being now, but she wasn’t at the time. She was always looking for approval and love and stuck with him, even when he cheated on her. I’m glad that she finally became independent enough to give Brando the boot.
This memoir is raw and unflinching, and that’s just part of what makes it great. The other part is that Moreno just comes across as a super human being that you wish you knew. She’s real, despite being a “Hollywood” star. I’ve read plenty of celebrity memoirs, and I can tell you, that’s rare. And if you haven’t had a chance, watch Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (Amazon), if only to see her performance.
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