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Rita Moreno gets candid in documentary on her decades-long career

Rita Moreno points at her T-shirt, which says "Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It."
“I made a promise to myself beforehand that I was going to be as honest as I could possibly be,” Rita Moreno says of the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
(Roadside Attractions)

At 89, actress Rita Moreno is still in the process of living a remarkable, true Hollywood story, full of heartbreak, political struggle, rejection and triumph.

With the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” director Mariem Pérez Riera fits this path-breaking, EGOT-winning seven-decade career into 90 minutes, with the aid of a subject who can’t help but express herself with radical candor.

A decade ago, Moreno published a bestselling memoir, but she says the documentary encouraged additional layers of introspection.

“This was very, very different,” she says, speaking from her Berkeley home, “because there isn’t one question that’s asked of me in the documentary that isn’t spontaneous. I made a promise to myself beforehand that I was going to be as honest as I could possibly be, because anything else would have been ridiculous.”

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Moreno’s story is in many ways a triumph, but it’s also a first-person account of the racism, sexual harassment and predation that has long underwritten the glamour of Hollywood. The film suggests that despite winning just about every major award showbiz has to offer, Moreno is still fighting an uphill battle in an industry that remains hostile to powerful women of color.

Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and immigrated to New York City when she was 5, and her seamstress mother made costumes for the budding child performer. After a meeting with then-MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, a teenage Moreno established herself as a would-be “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” for the studio. But on arriving in Hollywood, she was quickly shoehorned into a series of thankless roles, where her background became an excuse to play any nonwhite, “exotic” caricature. Making the best of an unfortunate situation, Moreno developed a facility with what the documentary, now streaming on Netflix, calls the “universal ethnic accent.”

With her landmark portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story,” she became an Oscar-winning star in 1962, but she still had to fight to win meaningful roles.

Riera encountered Moreno on the set of Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” where her son played Moreno’s grandson. When she heard that producer Brent Miller was considering making a documentary on the star, the Puerto Rican filmmaker pitched herself as a potential director. She already knew Moreno as an icon but found her more fascinating as a human.

“I realized that [Rita] would drive to work and she would then drive home at 11 at night, after being there for more than 15 hours. And it wasn’t a [chauffeur] or her assistants or nobody. I really wanted the audience to connect with her — not the glamorous Rita Moreno, but the Rita Moreno that’s insecure, that sometimes can be very fragile.”

Riera decided to film three extended interviews with Moreno, hoping to get beyond a set of comfortable, well-rehearsed answers.

“When interviewing her,” Riera says, “I would talk about my experiences and what I have gone through as a Latina in Hollywood. And I think that that helped her open up to me, because she wanted to give me her advice or her side of the story. She kind of became my therapist in those interviews.”

In “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” Moreno is rarely at a loss for words. But sometimes, she says, she had to excavate deeper layers of truth, primarily when the subject was her 46-year marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, or her earlier, tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando.

Along with revisiting her story for the documentary, Moreno is about to revisit the world of her most famous role, as an executive producer and co-star of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake.

Though Moreno maintains an active career, she was initially skeptical about Spielberg’s offer.

“When Steven Spielberg called me about joining the cast, I thought he was calling me about a cameo,” Moreno says. “As delicately as I could put it, I said, ‘I’m so flattered that you’ve thought of me, but I don’t think a cameo would serve this film. It would be a distraction.’ And at that point he interrupted me. He said, ‘No, no, there’s a real part in here.’”

Whatever the success of Spielberg’s highly anticipated musical — set for a December release — Moreno is still expecting to fight for her next role.

“I’m still looking for jobs,” she says. “Nobody is knocking my door down. Obviously, I’ve gained way more respect than I think I ever had, or at least that’s expressed openly. And for that I’m deeply grateful.”

Moreno says she’s glad she did the documentary, “because I think it will see some young women through some very difficult times. I’m just amazed at how relevant [my story has] become, and in a way that’s very sad, because it means that things have changed, and they have also not changed at all.”

Entering the next decade of a historic career, Moreno is able to keep any future success in perspective.

“I’m going to be 90,” she says. “If I’m alive for the Oscars, I will be one thrilled Puerto Rican.”


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