The late master Stanley Kubrick adored “Citizen Kane,”“The Godfather,” “Eraserhead,” and “La Notte.” His tastes were eclectic, however; as his family and friends say, he also loved Steve Martin’s “The Jerk,” Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance,” and – most intriguingly – 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump.”
It is hard to say what appealed to the “2001” director about the Woody Harrelson-Wesley Snipes basketball buddy comedy. I would bet the performances of Rosie Perez as the rat-a-tat-talking “Jeopardy” wannabe named Gloria had something to do with it.
After all, despite moving to the United Kingdom in the early-’60s, Kubrick was a Bronx native, and as his early photography shows, he thrived on the pace and character of New York. He knew a character when he saw one, and Rosie Perez is nothing if not a character.
Her brisk, often moving new memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,” is exactly the kind of book one would expect from the inimitable actress with the unmistakable voice. Perez even subtitled the book “How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (With Great Hair),” and that’s a very Rosie statement.
That subtitle, in a nutshell, is her story, and it is one laced with sadness, but also hope, and humor. “I’m a relatively happy person who also happened to be clinically depressed for years,” she writes, adding, “(sorry, that just cracks me up.)”
Yes, very Rosie.
Born to Puerto Rican-American parents, Perez was being raised by her beloved aunt, Tia, until her mentally unstable mother Lydia reappeared at age 3, took her to St. Joseph’s Catholic House for Children in Peekskill and gave her away. It is a heartbreaking scene:
“Next thing I knew I was being handed over to the old lady with the scarf on her head as Lydia continued out the open door, waving good bye to me … My heart started racing. The door shut behind Lydia, and she was gone. In that moment, I became a ward of the state of New York, and the ‘property’ of the Catholic Church.”
Even though she still saw Lydia and Tia occasionally, Perez’s adolescent life was never the same. “I was in a time warp,” she writes, “with the same routine every day.” The domineering Sister Renata and group homes followed, as well as stints with relatives. She was not permanently reunited with Tia until she was nearly 14.
That stretch of time, from birth to age 14, encompasses about 180 pages of the 300-page book, and believe it or not, more grimness follows. Take this scene with her mother, one that reads like Dickens crossed with Joan Crawford:
“She punched me in the face. For the first time, in a knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed her arm with one hand and pulled back my other hand in a fist ready to punch her back — bad move. She quickly grabbed my fist ... wiggled her arm free, and proceeded to punch me repeatedly to the floor. I managed to scramble away and ran to my house as if my life depended on it.”
There are scenes of matter-of-fact violence throughout “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.” Happily, good things were still to come. Soon, Perez was spotted dancing at a club by a “Soul Train” talent scout, and recruited for the show. Of course, then Perez got into a fight with Don Cornelius.
But that was OK, because she was on the verge of a breakthrough, in the form of Spike Lee. She met him under rather inauspicious circumstances (Lee “was having a ‘butt’ contest to see which black chick” had the biggest butt — “no lie,” and a disgusted Perez made “a mockery of the whole thing”), but won him over, and was cast as Mookie’s girlfriend in the director’s 1989 classic, “Do the Right Thing.”
This started a wildly unique run of movies. She appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth” in 1991, “White Men Can’t Jump” in 1992, baboon-heart love story “Untamed Heart” in 1993, and Peter Weir’s “Fearless” in 1993.
It was the latter role, as the survivor of a plane crash that took the life of her infant child, that defined her career. She deservedly earned an Oscar nomination, and even though Perez did not win, her career moved to a new level.
Her best work was behind her after 1994’s “It Could Happen to You,” yet that was likely not her fault. I’m not sure Hollywood has ever known quite what to do with the strong-willed, ever-feisty actress, and that’s a shame.
Perez seemed to disappear from the big screen for several years – that stretch of time is not covered in the book. However, she returned with key roles in 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and in Ridley Scott’s underrated, ultra-grim film “The Counselor.”
Perhaps Perez is simply not the kind of star who is defined by her films. After all, they take up a small part of “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life.” What stands out are not her descriptions of auditioning for Peter Weir or Ron Shelton, or her time as a choreographer, or even the time Tom Cruise comforted her diabetic father at the Oscars. (“ ‘That’s Tom Cruise, daddy!’ I whispered back. ‘Oh! He’s Puerto Rican or Cuban?’ ‘No,’ I laugh. ‘It’s C-r-u-i-s-e, not C-r-u-z.’ ”)
No, what lingers in the memory is her spirit, and the place of forgiveness and compassion she arrives at by book’s end. Perez is a survivor, to be sure, and with her talent and drive, she deserves even greater success. I like to think Kubrick spotted that spirit in “White Men Can’t Jump” – and that it made him smile and nod in recognition of a fellow force-of-nature.
Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic and a frequent News contributor.
Handbook for an Unpredictable Life
By Rosie Perez
336 pages, $26