Back Row Book Club: Rita Moreno's America
I started reading old Hollywood memoirs about a year ago and since then, I have devoured every one I could find. Occasionally I would grab a more recent memoir but for me, the real jewels were the memoirs from a time when Hollywood was still seen as glitz and glamour because it is just so much fun to read about people tearing away that facade and being like, “do you believe this shit?!”
I highly recommend reading any and all of these that you can find. You know those days when you’re feeling slow and you just want to veg out in front of TV? Read a memoir instead. They’re fast reads, always entertaining, and they don’t rot your brain nearly as much. Insert the “more you know” star here.
I'd also like to dedicate all of my memoir reviews to my roommate Adam and Jenna [Ed. No relation] from Joyride for suggesting an idea that I initially rolled my eyes at and dubbed “too kitschy.”
Rita Moreno is the greatest. I knew this before I read her memoir, aptly titled Rita Moreno: A Memoir, and I knew it even more so afterwards. I mean, she’s sharp, stunning, can sing, dance, act, just everything. She also had a ton of sex with Marlon Brando. Giiiirl, get it.
Moreno’s memoir starts in Puerto Rico, a place she was less than thrilled to leave. At a young age, she and her mother left Puerto Rico to come to New York in a move she describes as a “reverse Wizard of Oz.” She went from the brightly colored island of her birth to the gray, industrial island of Manhattan. Though she says she understands the decision her mother made now as an adult, as a child she thought this was a terrible mistake and no good would come of it.
From a fairly young age, Rita worked as a performer. She learned how to dance and competed in partner dances for money. Then, as she began to dabble in singing and acting, she started to get more attention and offers. Some of the most interesting excerpts from the memoir have to do with what caveats came along with the offers she received, and how many offers hinged on her being able to make herself look white. When she was getting her start in Hollywood, she was hired because she looked enough like Elizabeth Taylor; they even marketed her as Taylor's Latina doppelgänger. So she bleached her skin and wore tons of light foundation and powder. The name Rita was selected as her stage-name in honor of another woman of color who was forced to change her appearance to get roles: Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Carmen Cansino. I mention this because I had no idea Rita Hayworth was half Spanish and I think that proves a pretty significant point towards white-washing in Hollywood. Both Ritas had to navigate Hollywood-types tempting them with work, but only if they were able to fit themselves into the "correct" mold.
Unlike Hayworth, Rita Moreno was able to maintain some semblance of her ethnicity, including a Spanish last name – albeit a selected one – and a portion of her natural looks. Of course, this meant that she was relegated to playing the kind of roles offered at that time to women who weren’t lily white. She was constantly being cast as a prostitute or a maid, and would try to turn down roles that didn’t interest her in order to make room for the more interesting projects she knew were out there.
Reading about her excitement to work on movies like West Side Story (1961) and Night of the Following Day (1969) is the best part of the memoir. West Side Story netted her an Oscar and a Golden Globe, which meant she was already halfway through with her EGOT with just one movie. Suck it, Tracy Jordan. Night of the Following Day was a flop but she got to play a more interesting part, even though she was still secondary to the male characters. She was also reunited with Brando, who in 1968 was still toned, lean, and had great hair. Later in the memoir, Rita remembers seeing her old friend after time had passed and laughing to herself about how Brando could look the way he did before he died and still have directors knocking down his door to offer him parts; meanwhile, she of course had to stay gorgeous for the rest of her life if she wanted to keep working. Fortunately for her, she’s been able to do that.
There hasn’t been a moment when she wasn't working and in the seventies, she won a Tony for The Ritz (1975) and two Emmys, one for The Rockford Files and one for The Muppet Show. Now, it needs to be mentioned that she was nominated for lots of awards she didn’t win and it is odd that someone who proved to be so versatile and lauded would have any issue at all getting offered interesting parts. Rita even goes on to say that working on HBO's Oz was one of her favorite experiences because she was cast as a nun. It was a great part on a well-written show but playing something besides stereotypes was its real draw.
Rita wasn’t too wild and her personal stories revolve more around sex than they do around partying. She went on a date with Elvis but got frustrated with his sexless ways, something Natalie Wood complained to Tab Hunter about as well. Brando was definitely a more passionate lover and it seems like they would wind up together even when they (or more accurately she) would try to distance themselves. She was living in a sort of boarding house when they first met and when he’d call, whichever girl would answer the phone would shriek about Marlon Brando, the hottest up and coming actor, being on the phone for Rita. They used to talk for hours, which seems like a weird thing to do on a communal line but it sounds like her housemates were more than willing to let that happen if she gave them details about Brando. I don’t think I’d be as forgiving; I’d demand a night with Brando for a truly fair trade.
This memoir was great for a lot of reasons, one of them being Rita’s obvious sense of humor coming across. Most famous people use ghostwriters for their memoirs and Rita was clearly careful to get one that captured her tone perfectly. She makes jokes about being a child on a boat headed to New York filled with other Puerto Ricans and being hit by a storm (“so much crying, so much praying”) and about her lifelong husband being controlling (“he wanted to be my father but I hadn’t had much use for one up till anyway”) while still feeling genuine about the other emotions in situations.
Hearing about the racism she faced and the attitude of “you’re so talented but can you look more like Elizabeth Taylor?” is quite sobering, even if you’re already aware of the dubious practices in the film world. She also speaks openly about sexual harassment, specifically one time when she was invited to a party with a handful of other hopeful starlets and it was made clear that they were here to have sex with whichever guest was interested. Rita was told she was “extremely fuckable” by a producer just after seeing a girl who looked too drunk to consent being whisked away upstairs. She left as soon as she could, leaving behind her purse, and managed to get a ride home from a truckful of Hispanic men who had been working on the property as gardeners. She was able to speak to them in Spanish and they offered her assistance without any questions or caveats. “The only true gentlemen that night,” she opines.
Rita Moreno is still working and still looks stunning. In her memoir she comes across as smart and resourceful, though a bit guarded. That’s not really surprising when you think of the bullshit she had to put up with just to work, and the fact that she has been nominated for and won so many awards yet still had to fight for her place at the table. Existing with that level of talent and being reduced to merely looks (and having those looks manipulated) would probably make most people bitter, but Rita handles it all with grace and insight. Whether it’s facing myopic opinions in her field of work or fending off the longing stares of JFK (yep, that JFK), Rita Moreno’s memoir is a great look at a strange world through the eyes of someone who refused to let the industry change her and instead demanded more than what they were willing to give. As I said earlier, get it, girl. You deserve it.