Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde
SYNOPSIS: Over a career spanning more than 70 years, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and award-winning actor. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, Moreno and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno was cast as any ethnic minority the Hollywood studios needed filled: Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and so on. Despite becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities, ignoring her proven talent.
Beyond the racism she experienced as a Latina actor, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” will explore the lesser-known struggles Moreno faced on her path to stardom, including pernicious Hollywood sexism and sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and an attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar. The documentary will demonstrate Moreno’s talent and resilience as she broke barriers and paved the way for new generations of artists by refusing to be pigeonholed and fighting for Latinx representation in a variety of genres.
REVIEW: Rita Moreno is a legend! What other way can you describe a woman who won an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004), National Medal of Arts (2009), and Kennedy Center Honors (2015), and Peabody Award (2019)? All these accolades do no justice to the magnitude of the woman. While production-wise the documentary wasn’t remarkable, her story was. Told through a series of vignettes from the likes of Norman Lear, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justice Sotomayor, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and countless playwrights and producers.
Rita is a trailblazer. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she came with her mother to the US during the Great Depression. From an early age, Rita loved performing and by age 16 she was the sole breadwinner of her family. After making a connection with the head of MGM Studio, Louis B. Mayer, she got a contract and 6 months moved to LA. This transition was not without struggle. People were not nice to her at MGM, she was sexualized, and set up on fake dates to raise her profile. She was also typecast, her skin darkened, and always played the “island girl”. Reflecting on this part of her career she stated that she went along with it at first but, soon after, it started to hurt and took an incredible toll on her self-image and self-worth. At another point, she mentioned how she wanted to turn down these parts, but that’s all she was offered, and she needed the money to survive.
The documentary also details more personal aspects of her life like her relationship with Marlon Brando and her agent who raped her. She reflected that she had so little self-worth at the time that she continued letting him be her agent. This particular moment of the documentary is intercut with images of the trial Christine Blasey Ford and introduces us to Rita Moreno the activist. Rita Moreno is a pro-choice activist. She almost participated in atomic disarmament marches and sat 15 feet away from Dr. King during his famous “I Have Dream Speech” at the March on Washington.
All this is not enough to describe her remarkable career Rita was in Singing in the Rain and got a chance to see Gene Kelly perform live. Rita Moreno is, truly, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Icon, legend, trailblazer do not do justice to explain what, as a Latina, Rita Moreno means to me. Year and year again trade publications and research papers discuss the under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood. The 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report states “Latinos’ share of lead acting roles was 6.6% on scripted broadcast shows, 5.5% in cable and 4.0% in digital in 2018–19. Among all TV acting roles in the past two years, Latinos’ best representation was in broadcast shows during the 2017–18 season, but even then, they made up just 6.4% of casts.” This is infuriating because the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood is a mirror to the under-representation of Latinos on the US job market in general, even though they make up roughly 17% of this country’s population.
After reading this if you still have any doubts about how kick-ass Rita is go watch her Oscar acceptance speech (an all-time great I might add. Even though she doesn’t agree.) or watch her sing Fever on the Muppets (which won her an Emmy), or that time she re-wore her 1962 Academy Award dress to the 2018 Academy Awards. I could talk about her all day.
All I can do is say thank you, Rita Moreno! Thank you for paving the way for a Latina girl like me. Showing me that women can do anything.
Director Mariem Pérez Riera’s Statement:
The first time I interviewed Rita, I had prepared a series of questions about the biggest moments of her career. As soon as she started speaking, I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers. It was as though I was speaking to a therapist who understood exactly what I had been through. I related to all she was saying: her stories about discrimination, the insecurities she felt because of the way others perceived her, the complicated love relationships, and the constant need to work three times harder to prove to others that she is worthy. It was at that moment when I realized that this movie was not just a biographical documentary of Rita’s life, but a story about all the women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves in a patriarchal society rooted in white supremacy.
While listening to her stories I constantly questioned the American Dream. To what extent are we willing to pay the price? Fifty years ago, Rita lived through hardships and experiences that unfortunately many women continue to endure, including myself. So I decided to shift the documentary’s focus to the courage, transformations, and highs and lows of a brave immigrant woman trying to overcome discrimination, hatred, and humiliation. A woman who when speaking about herself, speaks to and for a lot of us.
My goal with this documentary is to show what an amazing inspiration Rita is to all of us. In order to do this, it was important for me to capture Rita’s vulnerable and fragile side when she’s off-stage or off-guard. This is why one of the aesthetic decisions of the documentary was to follow Rita in a verité camera style. We see Rita in her daily life, without makeup, in pajamas, preparing her breakfast, or driving, doing her own hair and makeup, or setting out decorations for her own birthday party.
To me, a biographical documentary should do more than to tell important events in chronological order, it should move you emotionally, and make you feel like you actually know the subject personally. The decision behind every location for all the interviews was highly important to me, as I wanted the space, the environment, and the ambiance to capture Rita’s soul. I selected “vintage” spaces where Rita’s friends and colleagues could be interviewed. The decorations, the colors of the furniture, the warm light for example, should resemble Rita’s taste in some way, and be reflective of a space Rita would decorate for herself.
Another aspect I wanted to explore was Rita’s inner child, Rosita. To capture the duality of Rita and Rosita, I decided to use stop motion animation with paper dolls. These dolls were very popular during Rita’s childhood, and they embody the little girl who has been molded through clothing to “pretend” to be what the outside world wants her to be. Rosita/Rita was accustomed to behaving like a doll with no expression, obliged to accept any garment that is placed on her.
Music also plays a key role in this documentary. In addition to jazz as the basis of the score, the incidental music has many meanings, and I am very grateful to have included my ‘wish list songs’. Songs by Fania All Stars, La Lupe, and Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano”; all these songs relate directly and indirectly with Rita’s story.
During the final steps of the editing process, while looking for a song to close the documentary, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, performed by Nina Simone, came to mind. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. One could ask, how much would she have accomplished if she didn’t have all the limitations (“the chains”) thrown at her because of her race and her gender?
These lyrics take on another meaning when we hear them through the voice of Nina Simone at the end of Rita’s documentary. It helps us understand what it feels like to be Rita, to be an immigrant woman — “who decided to go for it” — despite society’s gender and racial expectations. Rita has finally liberated herself from all those chains that were holding her, she has finally expressed how it feels to be her, and now in her late 80’s Rita is finally able to be herself; flying through her greatest self. Rita’s voice becomes the voice of inspiration of every woman, especially of every immigrant, Latinx in the USA.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.
You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on Letterboxd, Twitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.