By Elias Savada.
A heartfelt, warts (just a few) and all look at one heck of a lady whose career has spanned cinema, television, theatre, and recorded sound…steered decidedly by Moreno as she takes to the screen in interviews, asides, clips, etc….”
It seems fitting, if just for a brief moment, that the same week a judge ruled that former studio mogul/sleazebag Harvey Weinstein can be extradited to California to face sexual assault charges, that actor Rita Moreno’s new documentary is opening in theaters. Yes, there’s a lot of love spread out in Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a heartfelt, warts (just a few) and all look at one heck of a lady whose career has spanned cinema, television, theatre, and recorded sound – and winning the ultimate accolade in each of those arts. Oh, she also won a Peabody. But this new documentary, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, is steered decidedly by Moreno as she takes to the screen in interviews, asides, clips, etc., with often bright and candid conversation. One such chat – no doubt evoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings on television in her Sony Pictures dressing room – turns to how MGM tried to make her a sex object when she arrived in Hollywood. She mentions a whiskey distillery executive who made unwanted advances toward her and recalls Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn as a “distinctly vulgar and crude man,” thereafter providing his inappropriate comments. Those brought to mind how Weinstein carried on that ugly misogynistic Hollywood legacy decades later.
When she started out in Hollywood in the 1950s, Moreno couldn’t play characters derived from her cultural background. There was often an ethnical negativity she was forced to present on screen. She played native types, often with exaggerated accents and darker skin than her own. “They were nothing like me,” she confesses. It is a shortcoming that Hollywood has hidden for most of its existence.
Yet, she also doesn’t appear to hold many grudges, and that’s probably what has kept this extraordinary Latina icon such a spry spirit at 89 years young. She’s not in show business for the fame and glory (but her home in Berkeley sure looks nice from those earnings), and she’s down to earth in just about every camera shot. We catch her telling us grand stories, but she more likely is talking out loud to herself, something she admits to having done since a little girl. The filmmakers intersperse archival footage that replicates some of her biographical tale, while at other moments the director opts to use stop motion animation with paper dolls molded after Moreno.
Sure there are clips from some of her many movies. It’s an interesting sampling, as it shows some of those stereotyped characters she was forced to play during the decade of nearly two dozen film and more than 30 episodic tv roles before she landed that West Side Story gig.
Coming from an era where she had no Latina role models to mimic, she created one. We all know that’s Anita, her Oscar-winning character in West Side Story 60 years ago. Self-possessed, sassy, sexy, and strong-willed Anita. Even with the heavy accent and the pounds of mud makeup, she became an icon for Puerto Ricans to admire and adore. She’s an executive producer and acting in the new version helmed by Steven Spielberg due out later this year.
Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film’s executive producers, are also two of the talking heads in it. Lear, now a month show of his 99th birthday, knows Moreno well as she was part of the timely rebooted (and now sadly cancelled) One Day at a Time reboot that Lear executive produced. Miranda (whose In the Heights will be sharing multiplex screens with this documentary) provides some historical perspective of the segregation and racial discrimination. Numerous stars and friends (Justina Machado, Hector Elizondo, George Charkiris, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan) are joined by scholars to frame the film’s social and cultural contexts.
There’s talk of how Moreno persevered after a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando. Even her 45-year marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon wasn’t a perfect fit. While she dealt with her personal struggles through therapy, she also took to the streets to fight for civil rights. She was on stage with Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in 1963.
This tribute, opening in theaters only before it eventually appears on the PBS series American Masters, covers the trials and tribulations that pushed one feisty Latina to stardom and then nearly drowned her in a pill-popping suicide attempt. It changed her life.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It shows us that a little girl can live the American dream, especially one who has the cajones to break the Hollywood mold.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).