EGOT*. If you know what that is, you may also be aware of Rita Moreno’s body of work. This film about her is a fairly straightforward tribute documentary, with talking heads and film clips, but the woman who emerges is so impressive. At the ripe old age of 89 (87 in the film), she’s still going strong, still fighting for representation, still acting and being her feisty self. But what Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It does beyond going over her extraordinary career in film, and stage, and television, is shine a bright light on the obstacles put in her way at every single step and her indomitable passion to be seen. I knew her name and have seen some of her work, but listening to her talk candidly about her life gave me a whole other level of appreciation for her.
Born in Puerto Rico, she moved with her mother to New York at an early age and began her show biz career very shortly after that. A Broadway role at the age of 13 attracted Hollywood’s attention. And she worked steadily after that, but the kind of roles she got were mostly the exotic other. She was the generic Latina, or in The King and I, a Burmese girl, or a Native American. She was frequently asked to put on a silly accent, and in fact used the same one no matter which ethnicity she played, and no one noticed. We all know her big break came with West Side Story. And her Oscar for her performance in it should have propelled her into more meaty, non-stereotyped roles. But as she so aptly put it in an interview with The Miami Herald in 2008, “Ha, ha. I showed them. I didn’t make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar…. Before West Side Story, I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.”
But she never stopped. She was on Broadway (The Vagina Monologues, The Odd Couple) and television (Electric Company, Rockford Files, Oz, One Day at a Time) and returned to film after her self imposed exile. A whole cadre of younger Latinx performers (Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, Karen Olivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda) are on hand to talk about her influence but also how they’re still facing many of the same barriers. Moreno also talks about being a woman in Hollywood, the sexism, the propositions, and even a sexual assault by her agent. She also goes into detail about her long but turbulent relationship with Marlon Brando. It’s all illuminating and sad and maddening, and you wonder at times how she kept going.
But then the title says it all. Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It is a beautiful tribute to a super talented, tenacious, and brave woman everyone should know about. And I highly recommend it. I’m also excited that she’ll be in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake coming out in December. Need to re-watch that original sometime before then.
Only in theaters starting June 18th.
*EGOT = Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. As of 2020, only sixteen people are EGOTs. Rita Moreno is also one of 23 people who have achieved what is called the Triple Crown of Acting, with individual competitive Academy, Emmy and Tony awards for acting; she and Helen Hayes are the only two who have achieved both distinctions.
[Mainstream Chick’s quick take: I wasn’t really aware of the breadth of Rita Moreno’s work until watching this documentary. To me, she was “Anita” in “West Side Story,” and the Puerto Rican lady from the educational kids’ show “The Electric Company”. I now have a much deeper appreciation for her talents and perseverance. For more, check out the discussion I had with my podcast partner Charlie in this edition of The Cinema Clash. -hb]