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Early in her career, Rita Moreno made a promise to herself: If she ever made a documentary, she would be completely honest. No shading of truths, no make-up or glam the whole time (something she was less than thrilled by), and fully unfiltered. But she made a deal with herself, and as she says, “You don't want to go back out of a deal with yourself.” That’s why, if the storied actress is sitting behind you in a theater where her documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is playing, you will hear her let out a horrified “Oh God!” at the screen whenever she’s barefaced. And you’ll know it’s her.
But aside from that peeve, the 89-year-old Puerto Rican-born actress is proud of the way the documentary has been received thus far. Sure, she’s thrilled that it’s been well-reviewed as “a testament to the vitality and integrity of an artist who is not showing any signs of slowing down” and as “a powerful cultural artifact that will educate future generations of Latinos.” But having 100% on Rotten Tomatoes? She’s in sweet disbelief.
“Rotten Tomatoes, who ever dreamed?” she exclaims from her New York hotel room. It’s the little things for her, and Moreno’s frenetic energy sends shockwaves over the phone line—an amalgamation of trying to find her remote to turn the TV off (“I just don't want to look at Trump's face for another second if I don't have to”), the aftermath of a “raucous” dinner with her former Oz crew (“The air was blue with language”), and the forthcoming premiere of Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Moreno may be going on 90, but she’s in the prime of her life.
And she’s more than earned it. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (coming out June 18) is a culmination of Moreno’s uphill battle as a Latina actress in Hollywood, her personal trauma and her hard-won success. It captures her impassioned response to watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, reliving when her agent raped her, her tumultuous years-long affair with actor Marlon Brando and her relationship with her late husband Leonard Gordon. The documentary also reveals the comically blunt and joyful human Moreno is off-screen—one who has themed birthday parties each year and quips that the fruit growing on a tree looks like “an elephant’s penis.”
But in exploring the 70-year career of Moreno, director Mariem Pérez Riera showcases a larger story of an actress as the embodiment of the “American Dream.” While that came with success and accolades, for Moreno, it also unfortunately meant years of battling industry racism, sexism and typecasting. “I was playing characters with thick accents who were either pouring coffee for somebody or wearing Indian headdresses. I played every dark-skinned person you could possibly play in this country. I played American Indians, I played Egyptians, I played Mexicans, interestingly enough everything but Puerto Ricans, because they didn't even exist on anybody's map,” she says. (Despite donning brownface in some roles, Moreno experienced heat online this week for defending Lin-Manuel Miranda over criticism regarding the lack of Afro-Latino representation in In the Heights.)
In Hollywood, there were no role models for someone like Moreno. As she got older, she realized that with her role as Anita in West Side Story, which she describes as “the only Hispanic part of any kind of substance that I ever played,” she had become her own role model. “Role models have become such a big thing now, and that's good, that's very important,” she says. “And I became one, really, by default.”
At 89, this is just one of the things about Hollywood that still frustrates Moreno. There is of course the two-time cancellation of One Day at a Time, one of the only Latino stories portrayed on TV, where she played the show’s sassy grandma Lydia for four years. She doesn’t know what it will take for more representation in Hollywood. “We are so poorly represented in television and in movies, especially in movies. Where is our Moonlight? she asks. “Are we really going to accept the fact that Jennifer Lopez is the only successful and talented Hispanic?”
For years, Moreno has also been plagued by Hollywood’s tokenization of Latinx and Hispanic actors. “I remember seeing scripts where they have breakdowns of the characters in the cast, ‘Molly Evans, female MD. John Joseph, lawyer.’ And then it'll say, ‘David Ramirez, Hispanic,’ meaning get a Hispanic actor for this,” she recalls. “I think we need to be able to play parts that don't necessarily depict us as Hispanic ‘this or that.’ Just the appellation makes me impatient because that already means you're still being categorized.”
There’s also the issue of ageism, which she’s been facing as an octogenarian. And no, Moreno doesn’t just want to just play a grandma. “Why can't this woman with white hair be something other than just a grandma? Why can't she be a lawyer? Why can't she be behind a perfume counter, somewhere?” Moreno asks. For the actress, the categorization is infuriating: “People who are political are so happy that a Hispanic older woman is being used for something. Well, I'm not. I think we know we need to go a lot farther than this.”
Recently, she’s gotten her wish. The day we speak, Moreno filmed a cameo in the TV production of Wicked as a “cuckoo” witch: “It's very funny, and I don't speak at all like a person from a Caribbean country. I'm speaking in very lofty terms because I can do that. I am an actress.” And in a few weeks, Moreno will play a teacher in The Prank. “I play a nasty school teacher that has nothing to do with being a nasty ‘Hispanic’ school teacher, just a nasty school teacher,” she says. “It's a funny movie, and I could not be happier.” Later this year, she’ll also have a role—not a cameo—in the Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story as Valentina, the widow of candy store owner Doc. Created especially for her by screenwriter Tony Kushner, the character and her placement pays homage to one of the most heartbreaking and well-acted scenes from the original: the candy store “taunting scene” where Anita endures racist remarks and is nearly raped.
If Moreno’s schedule is any indication, the legendary actress has no intention of slowing down. She’s soaking up every moment, whether it’s for work or play. Two weeks ago, she recalls enjoying a fête for Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It in her native home of Puerto Rico with her grandson (“You have no idea what amazing means ‘til you come in on a Puerto Rican celebration”). To him, she’s always been “Grammy,” not Anita in West Side Story, Zelda Zanders in Singin’ in the Rain, or Sister Peter in Oz. Finally, after years of storytelling, Moreno felt like at that event he finally understood her impact. “He said, ‘Oh, my God, you're so loved and famous,’” she recalls. Her reply? “Of course I am. I told you this years ago, you twerp. I'm a fucking star.”
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