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Photo: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It’/
When Rita Moreno became the first Latin American woman to win an Oscar, for her role as Anita in 1961’s ‘West Side Story’, she gave one of the shortest speeches in ceremony history: “I can’t believe it. Good lord! I leave you with that.” Today, despite the fact that Moreno paved the way for countless other Latinx performers to succeed in Hollywood, Moreno still feels awkward about that moment. Should she have said more? Should she have used that one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advocate for others, or to bring the industry to task for its discriminatory practices? Should she have given thanks for all of the sacrifices of those generations who came before her, or to everyone who helped her and believed in her along the way? Should she have thanked Puerto Rico for her heritage or America for the opportunity? Should she have sent a message to all of the children watching to say that if she could do it, so could they? Perhaps the most important question is this: Why does the brilliant Rita Moreno still sometimes feel the urge to second-guess her authentic self?
These are all questions explored in ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’, a new documentary about the journey of Rita Moreno from shoeless Puerto Rican toddler to Hollywood legend. It’s a fascinating film, exploring the evolution of the U.S. through most of the 20th century and into the 21st, using Moreno’s experience as a focal point. There are few performers better suited to provide this perspective. When Moreno was born in Puerto Rico in 1931, Puerto Ricans had been (non-voting) American citizens for only 14 years. The territory’s unincorporated designation meant that Puerto Rican men could be drafted to fight and die in American wars, but they could not vote or represent their home in national politics. When Moreno and her mother left the rest of their family behind to move to New York, they ostensibly became full-fledged American citizens, but they still faced the rampant discrimination of the highly segregated New York City blocks.
Fighting Stereotypes, ‘One Day at a Time’
As told in this documentary, Moreno’s story is part fairytale, part grim reminder of the dysfunction of America and the Hollywood system. After an adolescence of honing her skills doing a ‘Carmen Miranda’ routine for soldiers shipping out to fight in World War II, Moreno was discovered and set up to meet with MGM executive Louis B. Mayer. Moreno remembers how her thickly-accented mother asked for Mayer at the receptionist’s desk–her impressions of her mother are some of the film’s sweetest and most endearing moments.
She also remembers the receptionist’s disdain, and how Mayer commented that she looked like a ‘Spanish Elizabeth Taylor’. As a star of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, Moreno was a commodity. She was rented out as arm candy to various stars and executives as a way to drum up publicity. She was sexually harassed and even raped. Meanwhile, the roles she was being offered were almost always horribly stereotypical Native American or ‘Island Girl’ roles, which required Moreno to wear brownface makeup and speak in an imaginary accent.
Her story is one of survival, and the documentary’s constant juxtaposing of Moreno’s past with her present illustrates how far things have come and how far they have yet to go. In behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Moreno’s sitcom ‘One Day at a Time’, Moreno merrily munches on craft service blintzes while simultaneously watching the Christine Blasey Ford hearings with dread. Moreno managed to carve out a lasting career for herself because she has always been able to take the good with the bad; she’s always been able to find a path to joy. Her perseverance has made her a hero to modern-day stars like Eva Longoria, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Gina Rodriguez, the latter of whom said of Moreno, “When you followed your dreams you gave me allowance to follow mine.”
Rita Moreno – A Trailblazer for Social Justice
Moreno fought for her dreams, but so much of her reminiscing is about moments in which she wonders if she could have fought harder. The film highlights the insidious truth of negative stereotypes–not only do they teach people how to see you, but they also teach you how to see yourself. How often did Moreno accept subjugation, because she thought that was what she deserved? She speaks candidly of her off-and-on affair with Marlon Brando, describing him as “the daddy that I couldn’t please.” Brando was a huge star, embraced by the system and given the variety of opportunities that were denied to Moreno. Eventually, she became pregnant with Brando’s child, which led her to get a traumatic clandestine abortion that could have cost her life.
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Moreno’s indefatigability is truly inspiring. Despite the fact that her relationship with Brando involved a life-threatening procedure and a suicide attempt, she still remembers him with some fondness as a socially conscious actor who encouraged her to seek therapy. With a twinkle in her eye, Moreno describes Brando, “Have you ever been so obsessed by somebody that you feel like you can’t breathe without them? That’s how Marlon felt about himself.” Moreno never wallowed in self-pity. Her adverse experiences led to her becoming a greater advocate for social change. She recalls being present at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, seated next to Sammy Davis, Jr. and only a dozen or so seats from King himself.
EGOT and Beyond
Her film career was always a series of peaks and valleys. Despite proving to narrow-minded executives that she could play a ‘white part’ with 1952’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, she was pushed back into an ‘exotic’ part in 1956’s ‘The King and I’. Moreno may occasionally give herself a hard time for putting up with the typecasting, but in the words of her ‘The Electric Company’ co-star Morgan Freeman, “If you’re artistic-minded, you do what you have to do.” Moreno’s career is a testament to her evolving self-confidence. After her ‘West Side Story’ Oscar win was followed once again with more stereotypical offers, she didn’t make a movie for seven years. Instead, she broadened her horizons.
She won an Emmy for her appearance on ‘The Muppet Show’, a Grammy for ‘The Electric Company’, and a Tony for the role of Googie Gomez in the Broadway hit ‘The Ritz’. By the end of the 1970s, Rita Moreno was one of only three performers to have won the coveted EGOT, clearing the way for future winners like Whoopi Goldberg and John Legend. While Moreno may not have taken her Oscar speech as an opportunity to deliberately reach out to the next generation, her involvement with children’s television gave her an even greater platform to inspire.
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ is a delightful exploration of evolving identity, ultimately filled with hope. Moreno continues to dialogue with her past, her present, and her future. Slowly but surely, society has caught up with Moreno–in her life, she has received acknowledgments from both President Bush and President Obama for her cultural contributions. At the age of 89, Moreno continues to reinvent herself, injecting her latest characters with stereotype-rejecting vivaciousness and sexiness. In a lyrical bit of synchronicity, audiences will see Moreno in Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ remake, set for release on December 10, 2021. Here’s hoping that Rita Moreno keeps on ‘going for it’ for a long time to come.
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ is currently playing as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival Lineup.
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