When Rita Moreno made history at the 1962 Academy Awards, becoming the first Latina to win an Oscar for her groundbreaking role as Anita in West Side Story, she was so overwhelmed that her acceptance speech was a mere 11 words: “I can’t believe it. Good lord. I leave you with that.”
But the Hollywood icon has a lot more to say in a brand new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29. The film, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, peels back the layers of stardom and shows a side of Moreno few have ever been able to witness.
The two met four years ago on the set of One Day At A Time, the acclaimed reboot of Norman Lear’s original 1970s sitcom reimagined to focus on a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles. Riera’s son, Marcel Ruiz, plays Alex Alvarez, grandson to Moreno’s gregarious and fabulous Lydia. When the show’s producer, Brett Miller, mentioned he’d been wanting to work on a documentary about Moreno’s life, Riera pitched him a vision that would focus on the real-life verité moments that occur when the cameras aren’t rolling. We see Moreno at home planning her own birthday party with her daughter, driving to work in the early hours, choosing blintzes and sour cream over scrambled eggs at the crafts table, and getting ready for awards shows. (The title comes from a slogan on a bedazzled shirt she decides to wear on the red carpet.)
Through stop animation of Moreno as a paper doll, easily manipulated and moulded to fit any role that was required of her — on- and off-screen — Riera traces the journey from her beginnings as Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano, born in Puerto Rico in 1931, to Rita Moreno, star and symbol of the American Dream.
The documentary also features insights of her peers, co-stars and admirers, a star-studded array that includes Eva Longoria, Morgan Freeman, Gloria Estefan, Hector Elizondo and fellow EGOT Whoopi Goldberg (Moreno is the first Latina to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award) all of whom sing the actress’s praises. But in candid interviews with Moreno herself, we also get to know some of the pain that was hidden behind the glamorous facade of her trailblazing fame. An abortion that nearly killed her, her frustration with an industry that constantly made her play stereotypical characters, rampant sexual misconduct and abuse, and a troubled romantic relationship with fellow star Marlon Brando are just some of the topics she candidly dives into.
Refinery29: Celebrities on Rita Moreno’s level know how to navigate questions about their lives, but you got her to open up about some very painful and difficult experiences. How did you get past that training?
Mariem Pérez Riera: “She was willing to open herself, but I think because she’s so used to being in front of the camera, she knows what to say and what not to say. In order to dig deeper, I would tell her my stories. I was going through a divorce when I interviewed her, and so would share things with her, and that allowed her to open up as well. For all the difficult subjects, that’s what I did, I asked her through my experience.
“We interviewed her for three different days. The first day, I just went through the basics — movies, shows. And because we were following her for so long, and the team behind the camera was mostly Puerto Rican, and we would talk in Spanish most of the time, I think that made her feel more comfortable because it reminded her of being in Puerto Rico when she was a little girl. The last interview was the tough one, the one where we asked everything I hadn’t asked before. She didn’t even wear eyelashes that day because she was worried that she was going to cry.”
Were there any questions that you were hesitant to ask?
“About her marriage, yes. ‘Was she relieved [when it ended after the death of her husband]?’ And she was so kind to answer. That was one of the toughest questions. There are others that aren’t in the documentary, about her little brother that she never saw again [after leaving Puerto Rico]. That’s one of the toughest things that she has gone through. She talks about it in the beginning, but that’s it.”
Her description of her sexual assault by her agent when she was a young actress is absolutely devastating to watch. What was it like to be in the room when she talked about that?
“It was tough to ask that question, but I had to. She talks about it a little bit in her book, but she was open to go into details.The fact that she went into detail about it makes it an even stronger statement. There’s a moment in West Side Story where it’s implied that she’s about to be raped by the whole gang, and she told us how that moment was very tough for her, and she started crying. I asked her why, and that’s how we got into that question.”
She also talks about her toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and how the fight that we see in 1968’s The Night of the Following Day was actually very real.
“Those are real moments. That’s part of what I think is cool about this movie, is now we see the scene in a different perspective. Now we have the backstory of what happened. Also, when she won her Oscar, she had gone through trying to die by suicide just months before. [When you know that,] then you understand, Oh, maybe that’s why she isn’t even able to speak to the audience. It’s because she’s still insecure inside.”
One scene from the documentary that stuck with me is when we see her without her wig, before she has her on-set makeup. That’s an aspect of the Hollywood experience we don’t usually get to witness.
“That was difficult for her team. They didn’t necessarily want her to be seen without a wig. And every day we were hoping that it would happen, and that day she allowed us to see her putting the wig on, and that was a precious moment. Until that day, her team kept telling us, ‘It’s okay without makeup, not without a wig.’ They were very cautious of what to show and what not to because she’s a star. I think that’s one of the most amazing moments in the movie.”
The documentary interrogates the idea of Moreno as a symbol of the American Dream, asking instead what she might have achieved if she didn’t have all these obstacles in her way. Was that always your intention going in?
“I live in Los Angeles but I’m from Puerto Rico, and my son came here when he was only 8 years old. The American Dream is not always happy, it’s a real struggle, and it was important to show that. Hector Elizondo says it [in the movie]: ‘To me the American Dream is only having opportunity. Everything else is on your own.’ The American Dream is not just her winning awards and coming from a poor life to stardom in this beautiful house in Berkley. It’s a lot of fights and a lot of struggles.”
Moreno is a producer on the upcoming reboot of West Side Story, but your movie gets into the more controversial aspects of the original, especially in its stereotypical representation of Puerto Ricans. What relationship did you have with West Side Story?
“When I saw the film, I was very young, and I don’t think I saw it with that in mind. I was watching the movie with the first Puerto Rican actress to win an Oscar. It wasn’t until later that I realised: Wait. She’s saying ‘Puerto Rico, let it sink back in the ocean.’ That’s tough. Why? Actually when we were making the documentary, they were holding auditions in Puerto Rico for the new movie. And I told Rita, ‘Do you know there are a lot of Puerto Ricans who don’t like the movie because of what it represents?’ They even had a panel in Puerto Rico with actors and professors from the university and Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner. I think it’s great she’s part of the executives of this movie, because we were able to let her know what Puerto Ricans felt.”
Has Moreno seen or reacted to the film at all?
“Yes, she saw it once. Her reaction was really nice, because after, she said: “Oh wow, now I understand why so many women think I’m a trailblazer.” It wasn’t until she saw the film that she [realized] how important she is to many women like me.”.
Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, will air on PBS' American Masters later this year.