‘Rita Moreno’ Doc Follows Trials & Triumphs of Puerto Rican Icon

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The theatrical release of Mariem Pérez Riera’s (no relation) powerful new documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It a full week after the theatrical and streaming release of John M. Chu’s big screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In the Heights is wonderfully serendipitous. Not just because Miranda is one of the documentary’s executive producers and one of its interview subjects, or just because it’s the third documentary released in the last three years about a major Puerto Rican cultural icon (the other two being the American Masters documentary Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage and last year’s Netflix documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado). It’s also because you can draw a straight line from Rita’s groundbreaking career and struggles, to Miranda’s own struggles in getting his first major production off the ground on both Broadway and in Hollywood. And yet, Rita’s harrowing experience in the studio system made it a bit easier for projects like In the Heights to eventually become a reality.

Now, journalistic convention dictates that any person interviewed or written about should be addressed by their last name. That convention, frankly, does not apply when writing about Rita Moreno, especially for those of us who grew up in Puerto Rico watching her on The Electric Company and feeling a sense of pride in seeing a Puerto Rican in such a high-profile public television show; or much later in The Rockford Files, and in such films as The Four Seasons (1981) and I Like It Like That (1996). She was, until Raúl Juliá broke through, THE Puerto Rican star (and, no, I haven’t forgotten José Ferrer; but to us young ones at the time, Rita was IT). She made the island visible even when playing a non-Latino character. Which is why it feels wrong to call her by her last name. You don’t call that other Rita (Hayworth, another Latina actress who was also a victim of Hollywood’s predatory and racist culture) by her last name, after all.

Rita Moreno starring alongside Morgan Freeman on ‘The Electric Company’

Also produced for PBS’ American Masters series, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It does not seek to break new ground in documentary filmmaking. With its chronological structure, the reflections from colleagues and academics who provide anecdotal, historical and cultural context to Rita’s experiences, and Rita’s own candid and brutally honest recollections, the documentary tells her story clearly and concisely. Pérez Riera, who met Rita during the production of the first-at-Netflix-then-on-Pop-TV contemporary take on Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time, where her son Marcel Ruiz played her grandson, takes full advantage of Rita’s skills as a raconteur by positioning the camera right in front of her, at eye level. This creates the sense that Rita is speaking directly to us, up close and personal. The effect is riveting; she holds us in her thrall. 

“No one has lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno,” claims Lear early in the film. Pérez Riera (whose credits include the documentary Croatto: la huella de un emigrante, about the Argentinean singer Tony Croatto’s contributions to Puerto Rican folk music, and the delightful Benicio Del Toro-produced comedy Maldeamores) then proceeds to immediately debunk that assertion. Eighty-seven years old at the time the documentary was shot (Rita turns 90 on December 11), the first artist to become an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) fondly recalls her childhood in Humacao, Puerto Rico before her mother divorced her father, packed her bags and took her from the sunny, warm, colorful island to the gray, cold, snowy streets of New York City in the middle of winter and during an economic depression.

She was bit by the performing bug in her early teens. After dropping out of school, she started performing as a dancer at local clubs; her mother, a seamstress, made all her costumes. Rita got her first big break after dressing up like Elizabeth Taylor for a meeting with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer in New York. Afterward, with a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in hand, mother and daughter packed up their bags and left for Hollywood. Outside of a brief appearance in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Rita was pigeonholed into playing token ethnic roles. And since directors and actors couldn’t tell the difference, she adopted the same weird, exaggerated accent for all those roles, her skin caked in what Rita tongue-in-cheek describes as mud.

During this time, she also put up with the advances of countless movie executives, one of them being Harry Cohn, the Columbia Pictures executive who sexually exploited and abused his actresses, including Rita Cansino, a.k.a. Hayworth. Rita Moreno recalls being raped by her agent; she had no choice but to continue being his client since he was the only one helping her “in my so-called career.” 

Pérez Riera doesn’t waste any time in dealing with what, for many Puerto Ricans, is still the big white elephant in the room: West Side Story (especially given that the new Steven Spielberg-directed version, co-starring Rita, will be released in December). In fact, it is Rita’s memory of preparing for Anita’s rape scene which triggers in her mind (and in the film) memories of her actual rape. Through Rita and the testimony of such academics as Columbia University professor and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner and New School of the Humanities Action Lab professor Julia Foulkes, Pérez Riera addresses the legacy and impact of Stephen Sondheim’s and Leonard Bernstein’s musical, for many their first exposure to Puerto Ricans as a people. Rita herself had to rewrite the introductory dialogue to “America.”

Rita Moreno, as Anita, singing “America” in ‘West Side Story’ (1961)

Rita may have been the first Latina to win an Academy Award, but that did not translate into better roles or more work. Her decision to not play what she calls “the dusky maiden roles” led to a film drought in her career, and so she turned to theater and television. Then there was her tumultuous romance with Marlon Brando (“He was the one I wanted to be married to”). He may have introduced her to the civil rights movement and awakened her interest in activism, but he also left her with a child he forced her to abort. His break-up with her led Rita to attempt suicide. She had her revenge, though, in a particularly vicious scene in The Night of the Following Day (1969, one of three films that marked her comeback to the big screen that year), where she beat the crap out of Brando. 

It was also during this period that she met her husband, Leonard Gordon. Their meeting was cute, to say the least, and their 30-plus-year marriage may have been picture-perfect until his death in 2010. But as Rita acknowledges, it was anything but. He objected to and couldn’t handle her rambunctious temperament. “I may be petite, but I am big,” she explains. But she still has some happy memories of their time together, as evidenced in the home movies Pérez Riera deploys as Rita talks about this period in her life. She now prefers to live by herself, “especially when you know who you are living with.”

With over 160 film and TV credits, hundreds of hours of footage from her numerous public appearances—speeches, awards, recognitions, and concerts—and hundreds of family and behind-the-scene photos, Pérez Riera and her team had their work cut out for them. One unavoidably wishes footage from some of her other films and TV appearances had been included; those of us who have followed her career have, after all, our favorites. I personally wish more time had been spent on her theatrical and live performance experiences.

A teenaged Rita Moreno in ‘The Toast of New Orleans’ (1949)

But that wealth of material is proof of how versatile Rita’s life and career are. A single documentary can’t contain her. Rita is a national treasure, a bundle of joy, and a source of pride, as well as an inspiration for many. But, as Negrón-Muntaner states early in the film, you can’t help but wonder about the many roles Rita could have played had she not encountered so many racist and sexist obstacles. And yet, in spite of those obstacles, she thrived, inspiring dozens of Latina artists, in front and behind the camera, and leaving behind a hard-to-beat legacy. 

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a complete downer. The revelations may be shocking, but what we have here is an artist, a legend, a trailblazer, who has come to terms with her life, who cherishes each triumph, and who now embraces with brio this third act in her life.

The word “resilience” was used a lot to describe how Puerto Ricans in the island where able to pull through in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María four years ago, in spite of being ignored and mistreated by the local and federal governments. The word also describes Rita’s journey in the industry. Throughout the film, Pérez Riera uses stop-motion animation and a paper doll recreation of Rita the child and teenager as chapter headings for each stage in her life. By the end, that paper doll flies away, as if it were being blown by hurricane winds—a hurricane called Rita Moreno.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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