Seventy-five years of going for it

A new documentary details the pioneering career of Latina actress Rita Moreno

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT

This is a handsome, conventional documentary about the unconventional Latina actor and activist who fought ethnic stereotypes, sexual predators, and clinical depression over a career that’s now at year 75 and counting. (The film’s subtitle comes from her favorite T-shirt, which she had incorporated into a gown she wears at glitzy, award-receiving events.)

Moreno made her Broadway debut at age 13 in 1945’s Skydrift, recently completed four seasons as the family matriarch on television’s One Day at a Time reboot, and is an actor in and an executive producer of the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story. In between came an exceptional stage, film, and television career: She’s one of just 16 people, and the only Latinx, to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award.

Despite these and many other achievements, the documentary makes clear how much more Moreno could have accomplished had the entertainment industry not been so racist. Her first film roles were almost all “dusky maidens” speaking in “a universal ethnic accent” while wearing brown-face makeup, as Moreno describes them, regardless of whether her character was Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian, Asian, or Hispanic. (One of her few nonethnic parts was as silent-film starlet Zelda Zanders in Singin’ in the Rain, in which Moreno was cast at the insistence of director-star Gene Kelly.)

After her Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story, she understandably expected to be offered roles that were bigger and more three-dimensional, but they never materialized. Moreno started turning down the dusky maiden roles, which led to a seven-year hiatus in Hollywood.

The documentary goes on to examine how she was mostly able to dodge heavy-handed seduction attempts by Hollywood power players (“You know, I’d really like to [expletive] you,” Harry Cohn, the crass president of Paramount Pictures, told her moments after they first met) and her intense, abusive relationship with actor Marlon Brando. It lasted for more than eight years, ending with a botched abortion and her unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1961. These and other revelations are made especially harrowing by Moreno’s nearly dispassionate description of them.

As commentator Frances Negrón-Muntaner makes clear, part of Moreno’s coping mechanism with typecasting was to find parts which she could puncture Hispanic stereotypes. The supreme example is Googie Gomez, the character in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz that earned Moreno her Tony Award. Googie is the featured performer at a gay bathhouse’s nightclub, and her talent is inversely proportional to her ambition and her self-confidence, whether she’s belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” while making wardrobe and wig adjustments onstage or cooking a grilled-cheese sandwich with her dressing room iron.

If you always thought The Muppet Show was as pure as the driven snow, Moreno’s Emmy Award-winning appearance on it in 1976 will surprise you. She’s hot and hilarious as a sultry singer whose attempt to perform “Fever” is continually interrupted by Animal’s wild drum riffs. She and muppeteer Frank Oz improvised most of their interaction. (See the excerpt at youtu.be/FDjXeWksP4w.)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It ultimately suffers from some unasked questions and missed opportunities. Director Mariem Pérez Riera ignores her subject’s clearly complex relationship with her never-glimpsed mother — the single most influential person in her life — who hovers mysteriously over the daughter’s career in a way that suggests the ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy.

There’s also the all-too-familiar parade of big-name Hollywood types offering content-free platitudes about Moreno and her career (She was great! She was inspiring!), as well as film clips that are frustratingly brief. We never get to see her build a performance arc through a scene, and that’s what this legendary performer is all about. As a result, the documentary ends up feeling more like a hybrid of an awards-show career retrospective and Life without Makeup, Moreno’s one-woman autobiographical play. But there’s still plenty to enjoy and appreciate. Documentary, rated PG-13, 90 minutes, now in theatrical release, television screening on PBS’ American Masters on a date to be determined, 3 chiles

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