“I always wanted to be a movie star.”–Rita Moreno.
Rita Moreno’s dreams of movie stardom did come true, and then some. A boatload of prestigious awards and honors continues to replenish her trophy shelf and cap her amazing 70-year career, including an EGOT–she is the rare performer and the first Latina to have won an Emmy (2!), Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But it sure wasn’t easy.
Rita Moreno, feisty and fabulous at 87, recounts the highs and lows of her personal life and remarkable career in Mariem Pérez Riera’s delightful new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It. Following its successful theatrical run earlier this year, the 90-minute film debuts on the Award-winning PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET (Check local listings and below for streaming info).
Culture shock best describes five-year-old Rita Moreno’s transition from her humble Puerto Rican farming community to Manhattan’s racially and ethnically insular neighborhoods. After immigrating to NYC with her seamstress mom, Moreno studied dance and soon performed in clubs as a young teen to pay the rent. A Hollywood talent agent spotted her at one of her dance recitals and arranged a meeting with powerful MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. With contract in hand, the young Hollywood hopeful headed West, determined to become a star like her idol, Elizabeth Taylor.
Mayer took one look at the 16-year-old Latina Liz Taylor wannabe and rubber-stamped her casting in an endless stream of sexy generic ethnic minority roles. Like many young women in the industry, then and now, she was also targeted by the lascivious white, male film titans and flacks who ran the show in mid-century Hollywood. Yes, she was propositioned by Hollywood heavyweights, tragically assaulted by her agent and pigeonholed into stereotypic ethnic and indigenous character roles dumbed down with muddy make-up, obscure accents and dire fates; but Rita Moreno persevered.
“Rita is an incredible inspiration … hers is a success story for all women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves with courage and bravery against heavy odds,” said director Mariem Pérez Riera.
Moreno built her career in small roles on the big screen, culminating with her breakthrough performance and historic 1961 Oscar® win for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story. When the substantial film roles she coveted still passed her by, she segued to PBS, cable, Broadway and Netflix, where she continues to thrive.
Pérez Riera jampacks Moreno’s profile with an impressive line-up of notable film pros, cultural historians and celebrated Latinx performers who speak to the star’s barrier-breaking influence across the board in the entertainment industry and beyond.
But fasten your seatbelts! Rita Moreno is by far the liveliest on-camera participant here, there and everywhere as she revisits the good, the bad and the ugly influences and influencers that shaped her life and career. In the mix are her beloved daughter and grandsons; the husband who adored her; the toxic relationship with Marlon Brando; the racist discrimination; the rape, suicide attempt and botched abortion. Also noteworthy is her decades long, off-screen role as an outspoken Civil Rights and Women’s Rights’ activist.
Glorious clips from Moreno’s feature film, TV and cable performances remind us of the wide range of iconic characters she originated, including Anita in West Side Story, Sister Pete on HBO’s Oz, and family matriarch Lydia in Norman Lear’s 2017-2020 Latinx reboot of One Day at a Time (Netflix/Pop TV). Especially dear to her heart is her character work with Jim Henson and The Muppets and five-year stint on The Electric Company.
Rita Moreno travels full circle and returns to the big screen as Valentina, a character reimagined just for her in Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated remake of West Side Story. She also serves as Executive Producer. The film opens on December 10, 2021.
“I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno,” said Norman Lear.
And I can’t think of a better, more spirit boosting film than Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It. Going forward, it will definitely fit the bill in college and university classrooms and library and community programs focusing on Latinx culture and film history, systemic racism, and women’s issues, especially those related to the #MeToo movement.
A production of American Masters Pictures and Act III in association with Maramara Films and Artemis Rising Foundation, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It debuts on the PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air dates and repeat broadcasts in your region. It will be available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org/ritamoreno, the PBS Video App and PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan