Rita Moreno: She's still here

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday April 23, 2013
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Those who succeed in show business without reaching the highest echelons of stardom have compelling stories to tell. What kept them from making it to the top? What did they think about those who did? Rita Moreno: A Memoir (Celebra, $26.95) raises and answers those questions. The first Hispanic actress to win an Academy Award (for 1961's West Side Story), she would also earn a Tony, two Emmys, a Grammy and a Golden Globe.

She was born (1931) Rosita Dolores Alverio in Juncos, Puerto Rico. When she was five, her parents divorced, and she and her mother sailed to a frigid Manhattan, leaving behind Rosita's adored younger brother Francisco, whom she would never see again. Culture shock, bigotry, and poverty welcomed them to the Big Apple. They lived in crowded tenements before her mother married a kind watchmaker, whom Rosita loved. That marriage also ended in divorce, and Rosita disliked her new stepfather but took his last name for professional reasons. Her mother would wed five times.

Rosita was a poor student, but loved performing. She studied with Paco Cansino, member of a famous Spanish dancing family. His niece, Margarita Cansino, became Rita Hayworth, one of classic Hollywood's finest dancers and greatest stars.

Young Rosita worked on radio, at social events, in a Broadway play, and on early television before landing her first movie role, a leading part as a reform school inmate in a B picture, So Young So Bad (1950). An MGM contract followed, and Louis B. Mayer changed her first name to "Rita," in honor of Hayworth.

Moreno's idol Elizabeth Taylor was also at MGM, and she tried to emulate her beauty by wearing lighter make-up and copying her hairstyle. She has hilarious anecdotes about a foul-mouthed Ann Miller, who befriended her. Moreno had a featured part in Pagan Love Song (1950), the first of her dusky maiden roles, about which she both complains and spoofs. She played Indian and/or Latin spitfires in B movies, and had small roles in A pictures.

In discussing typecasting, she mentions how it limited Mexican-born Anthony Quinn, who would win two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, but is silent about Puerto Rican Jose Ferrer, who was the first Hispanic Academy Award-winning actor (1950's Cyrano de Bergerac), and whose parts ranged from Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952) to an anti-Semitic Austrian in Ship of Fools (1965). When MGM dropped Moreno, she signed with 20th Century Fox. Her best role there was as the Burmese princess in The King and I (1956).

She desperately wanted to play Anita in West Side Story, and it proved a joyous if demanding experience. She correctly criticizes the decision that all the actors playing Puerto Ricans wear dark make-up, despite Hispanic complexions ranging from fair to black. She adds that it was unfortunate Natalie Wood played Maria when a Hispanic actress would have been more suited. Yet she says nothing about Greek-American George Chakiris essaying Bernardo. The Oscar didn't bring her better parts, although she was thrilled to win, and recounts a funny incident that night involving Joan Crawford.

Her Tony came for one of the greatest comic performances in Broadway history, as Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally's The Ritz, a send-up of every spitfire she ever played, made even funnier by her character's belief in her own musical talents despite all evidence to the contrary. She reprised Googie in the film version (1976), but says nothing about it.

She discusses her tortured multi-year affair with Marlon Brando and how destructive it was to her self-esteem, yet how kind he often was. After it ended and she had married Dr. Lenny Goodman, they worked together in The Night of the Following Day (1968), with a simulated sex scene. Brando kept a picture of that scene with him until his death.

Her 1965 marriage to the much older Goodman lasted 46 years and yielded a daughter, Fernanda. Although they were portrayed as an ideal couple, it was a complicated and often stressful union. She wanted to be protected and he did so, but was also very controlling, which she resented. They worked through those issues, however, and she was steadfast through his declining health and death. She found new popularity and audiences with her multi-year run on television's The Electric Company .

Moreno spends too much time analyzing her relationships with her mother, Brando, and Goodman. More about her career would be compelling. A long-time Berkeley resident, she has earned great acclaim in many roles with Berkeley Rep, including a much-lauded performance as Amanda in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, yet she says nothing about it.

Hollywood's history with Hispanic actors has been inconsistent. No doubt Moreno is correct that stereotyping limited her chances for top stardom, yet more may have been involved. The book is well-illustrated but would have benefited from an index and more careful editing. For example, Gene Tierney's name is misspelled, and Crawford was a presenter, not a co-host, the night Moreno won her Oscar.

Still, this is a sincere reminiscence by a gifted woman who overcame tremendous obstacles in forging a remarkable career. Fortunately, she still hasn't taken her final bow. Ole, Rita!

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