Every kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s remembers Rita Moreno from the Electric Company, the education program that helped us with counting, writing and learning to tell time through various characters and methods. One of Rita Moreno's best-loved characters was a psychotic little anti-Shirley Temple named Pandora, who taught us about rhyming and sang about doing naughty things like sneaking a snack.
Before Electric Company, Rita Moreno was a staple of cinema, from dancing in West Side Story to Singing in the Rain and nearly a 140 other roles from the 1950s to 2013. She has won a Grammy, a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy, one of only a few to win all four. And now, as well as her extensive theater, movie and television background, she can add author to her credentials.
Charting her story from her early days in Puerto Rico, Rita describes the beauty of her childhood with almost an artistic view -- describing sights and sounds, and then suddenly her abrupt move to New York with her single mom, who left behind their entire life to start over in a tenement in the Bronx. Coming from 'beauty' and going into the 'ugly' was a cultural shock for young Rita, who couldn't speak a word of English and through a misunderstanding in the hospital with a bout of chicken pox finally began to grasp the language.
Her memoir weaves through her early years and into her career as a child dancer to a movie career at nearly 15 where she emulated Elizabeth Taylor in a meeting with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM studios, and began her career. She began to break down barriers in terms of racial stereo-types and pave the way for future latinas in the movie and television industry.
Rita also goes into details about her relationships with Elvis, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper and many others including how she was raped twice and a nearly 60-year marriage to a prominent doctor in New York. She reveals that even though she loved him, she often felt emotionally distant and that sometimes despite the outside appearance of a perfect marriage, she often felt trapped and wanted to escape.
Rita also touches on her suicide attempt during her relationship with Marlon Brando, about what she learned from the experience, and how she realized that her relationship was toxic and could not only potentially harm herself but also damage her career as well. She also learned that although he was one of the great loves of her life, he wasn't emotionally ready for the commitment she was desperate for and he wasn't the someone she could have a child with. When she did become pregnant, Marlon arranged for her to have an abortion -- a botched affair, which she nearly died from as well.
Rita's movie career is the story girls can only dream of, starring some of the biggest musicals of the 20th century. Although she shares anecdotes about being on set and her fellow actors, I wanted to learn more about her experiences, to understand what it felt like to work on the set of West Side Story with Ross Tamblyn and Natalie Wood. Although Rita states that Natalie was distant from the rest of the cast, she doesn't go into what really happened with Natalie on set, that some of the Sharks and Jets felt she'd been miscast, in their minds and from what I've read in other books on Hollywood. Apparently, she didn't take her role as Maria as seriously as she should have.
After gaining insight into someone who's had this amazing life both on and off the screen, who managed to do something that so many had tried before and failed -- have a successful career, a long marriage and a child in an age where celebrity life was splashed all over the front of the tabloids and scandal was the name of the game -- it's clear Rita Moreno was a pioneer in every aspect of her life.
Although the book covers her lengthy movie career, she leaves out details about her television career such as her failed spin-off of the Golden Girls, as well as her guest appearances on Law and Order: SVU and Ugly Betty. Not even Happily Divorced was mentioned. As far as the early days Rita spent in television, she simply skims over them and doesn't add much about them. I feel like I got more out of her interview on Emmy Legends.com about her days in television than from her book.
I admit, I have been anticipating this book for weeks because I'm such a huge fan of old Hollywood, and Rita Moreno is one of my favorite actresses. I don't mean to critique her book harshly, but I felt like instead of telling her story in chronological order, she was still debating over which stories to tell and which to keep to herself, and just was kind of threw them out there, reflecting back on them as if to say, 'I wish I had done this, instead of this' or 'I did this, and I should have done it a different way.'
There were some things I did learn about this fabulous legendary actress: that she was nearly 20 feet from Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech; that she was considered the original bra-burner herself; that her mom was the early form of a stage mom without being a total Mommie Dearest; and that she designed all of Rita's early costumes as a young dancer. Rita and her mom were a team, like Ginger Rogers and her mom, that did nearly everything to make sure Rita's career stayed on track.
In some cases, I felt like it wasn't so much a memoir as just kind of sitting on the couch and having a face to face conversation, which I admit would send me over the moon. It just didn't seem like the memoir type. Plus at only 309 pages, it doesn't even begin to cover a nearly 70-year career. But then again, another Hollywood buff might think this is a tremendous and spectacular book --- and there are moments where it is. I just feel like the conversation ended abruptly and I'm desperate to finish it.
Have you read Rita Moreno's memoir yet? What did you think she should have added or taken away?