The award-winning actress Rita Moreno opens up – in a memoir driven less by recollections from her career than by her effort to overcome crippling self-doubts and her dramatic love affair with Marlon Brando.
She is the only Latina and one of the few performers to have won all four major annual American entertainment awards, which include an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony and was the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award.
Her success story is what most girls of her generation and now dream of.
In 1936 her mother brought 5-year-old Rosita Dolores Alverio to the United States from Puerto Rico to seek a better life – as much or more for herself as for her daughter, leaving her husband (the first of five) and her young son.
In those days New York City was a concrete city of a different sort, cold and indifferent with overt racism. Rosita didn’t speak English when she arrived which didn’t help her make any friends quickly or stick out any less however her escape from all that was dance.
Guided by Paco Cansino, Rita Hayworth‘s teacher and uncle, Rosita began performing at 9 and dropped out of school as her career blossomed.
At just 13 she auditioned for her first play which she asked her mother to take her.
“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”
From there Moreno starting dancing in bars to performing for bar mitzvahs and independent movies. This lead her to be discovered by a talent scout who invited her to a “go-see” with Louis B. Mayer studio chief of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. The 16-year-old did her best to dress as her inspiration to impress the studio head. It worked!
In the Memoir Moreno recalls her first time meeting Louis B. Mayer:
“She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!” Moreno recalls Mayer saying at their meeting. “How does a seven-year contract sound to you, young lady?”
“Your name has to go,” “Too Italian” an MGM studio executive told her. She was now known to Hollywood and the world as Rita Moreno.
In 1961, Moreno landed the role of Anita adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking Broadway Musical, West Side Story.
After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story Moreno thought she would be able to continue to perform less stereotypical film roles, but was disappointed.
“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”
Moreno writes: “Ha, ha. I showed them. I didn’t make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar…. Before West Side Story, I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.”
“Ultimately, I can’t say that anything about the making of ‘West Side Story’ was a mistake, because the movie was brilliant and made history,”
Moreno does take shots at the 1961 film (here’s where the book gets juicy):
She writes about her “disdain” for the makeup that was used on the Puerto Rican actors to make all of the Sharks the same color. And she has some not so kinds things to say about the female lead, Natalie Wood.
“It was uncomfortable for Hispanics to see Natalie Wood play Maria, especially because we’d heard that Natalie hadn’t wanted the part, but had been so prevailed upon to take it that she couldn’t refuse,” Moreno writes.
She goes on to say that Natalie seemed “uncomfortable” with the group of dancers, who were largely Hispanic.
She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.
“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”
She writes about her personal love life, especially her greatest love, Marlon Brando:
In 1954, in a makeup room on the set of Brando’s “Désirée,” in which he played Napoleon, a 22-year-old Moreno met the man who would rock her world.
“Just meeting him that first day sent my body temperature skyrocketing as though I had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush,” she writes of meeting the 30-year-old icon-to-be. “It was the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs.”
The sex was earth-shattering.
“To say that he was a great lover — sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul. Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known,” she writes.
But it wasn’t all roses:
“He broke my heart and came close to crushing my very spirit with his physical infidelities and, worse, with his emotional betrayals,” she writes.
During their relationship, Brando married twice and fathered children with his wives.
But “I couldn’t stay away. In fact, I was becoming addicted to the challenge of winning him over and over again,” Moreno says.
Often the way to win him over was to date other men. Moreno took up with a disappointing Dennis Hopper, then with “a human missile . . . Elvis.”
“I knew no one could possibly make Marlon Brando more jealous,” she writes.
Her relationships with domineering men, particularly Marlon Brando, reflected her low self-esteem. She broke up with Brando a half-dozen times, returning to the notorious narcissist again and again. Driven to despair by an abortion and a suicide attempt – both stemmed from her affair with Brando – she managed to summon the strength to begin years of psychic healing.
After “West Side Story,” Moreno was set up with a Jewish doctor, Lenny Gordon, by a friend. On June 18, 1965, Moreno married Leonard Gordon and remained together until his death in 2010.