As she prepares for her upcoming 90th birthday, actress Rita Moreno can look forward to the release of Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated take on West Side Story, in which she plays a significant role, and to the PBS debut of a new documentary about her life.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, will premiere as part of the pubcaster’s Emmy-winning American Masters series on Tuesday, October 5. With startling candor, Moreno explores every aspect of her career as a Puerto Rican immigrant possessed of extraordinary ability to sing, dance and act and a burning desire for stardom. But as a young woman of color, she was generally cast as random “ethnic” types in “accent” roles—playing Thai, Polynesian, Native American, generic Latina, often with makeup smeared on to darken her skin.
Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' Trailer Dances Into Oscarcast
Speaking about the documentary at the PBS TCA presentation Thursday, Moreno recalled a moment of reckoning about the work she was offered for so long.
“I suddenly realized, ‘Wait a minute. Why do I always have to speak with an accent? Why do I always have to wear dark, dark, dark makeup, which is not my skin color? Why am I letting these people tell me who I am?’” she remembered thinking. “But that didn’t happen until much, much later. I can take full blame for accepting much of that for way too long. But I had no mentors, I had nobody to guide me.”
Not only were most of the parts unfulfilling—until a supporting role in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain playing a non-Latina, and the role of Anita in West Side Story that would win her an Oscar a decade later—but Moreno recounts being constantly subjected to sexual harassment by powerful Hollywood men, and being raped by her agent. And she does not hold back on her years with Marlon Brando, a romantic relationship so turbulent that it prompted her to attempt suicide.
“If I was going to do this project, it was important for me that I was going to make a promise that I would be as honest and truthful as possible. And that never changed, that objective,” Moreno said. “I think it’s probably one of the reasons, if not the reason, that this documentary has gotten such praise, because there’s no bull poop… I knew that was very, very important for me, for my own self-respect. I didn’t want on record for the rest of my life or the rest of my recognition as an actor to have on record that I lied about something deliberately. And I think it had a marvelous effect. I think people were surprised and delighted.”
With Spielberg’s West Side Story, set for release December 10, the day before Moreno turns 90, in a sense the star’s career comes full circle. She plays Valentina, a newly-conceived character who is the widow of the original film’s “Doc,” the kindly man who ran the corner store where Anita is nearly raped. Playwright Tony Kushner wrote the new version of the film.
“You are in for one of the great experiences of all time,” Moreno promised. “This is a great film. This is a great story… It was probably one of the most thrilling times of my life. Also let’s not forget, because I certainly can’t, that I’m an executive producer on that film. That was a big, big surprise. I didn’t expect anything like that and Steven [Spielberg] offered it and I couldn’t understand why but I said, ‘Oh, okay…’ Damn, it’s a marvelous movie.”
Moreno said the new West Side Story improves upon the 1961 film directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise that earned 10 Oscars.
“Many of the things that were not exactly right or real about the original have been corrected with a vengeance,” she noted. “And that has a great deal to do not only with Steven but with Tony Kushner… He has clarified a lot of the things in that film that weren’t clear, that were fuzzy… I can only tell you are in for the treat of your life.”
In the meantime, fans are in for a treat with the documentary, which premiered at Sundance.
“When I was interviewing Rita I often felt very related to what she was saying,” Pérez Riera commented. “I [thought] that if I could feel that way, any woman could feel that way, so that was the idea. It was also to show, through Rita, what it means to be a woman, period. And what it means to be a woman, especially Latina, and if you’re an immigrant in Hollywood and in the United States.”
Moreno says the film sends a message.
“I think we tell women that we have value. And it’s something that’s very, very difficult for women to understand because they’ve been mistreated for so long and particularly women of color and women from other countries,” Moreno said. “But all women, it’s so important to understand that we really do have value, no matter how—I hate to say the word—men, have treated us or perceived us.”
“I see Rita as a pathfinder and a groundbreaker who was fighting the #MeToo and #TimesUp fight for decades before those sayings and those organizations emerged,” noted American Masters EP Michael Kantor. “And it’s just hugely inspirational.”
Moreno said she agreed to the documentary with a few stipulations.
“I did want a woman director,” she said. “That was specific and she had to be Hispanic. She did not necessarily have to be Puerto Rican… It was delicious.”
What comes through in the documentary is Moreno’s incredible vitality at age 89, her impeccable memory, and her willingness to be so open about her life experiences.
“There were a number of scenes in the documentary where I look like a very old lady, which is what I am. But the camera loves me and I’m really good with makeup,” she laughed. ”But part of my promise to myself that I would be honest and truthful was that if I happened to not have makeup on at the time, that’s the way I would film. And they’re not my favorite parts of the documentary. Let me tell you, I was like, ‘Uh, god.’ I’m vain enough to not love that a whole lot.”
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