Classic Conversations: Director of ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’

I adore Rita Moreno. I mean, who doesn’t? The 89-year-old actress has it all. I loved her as silent movie star Zelda Zanders in the MGM classic Singin’ in the Rain, I loved her as poor Tuptim in the spectacular musical The King and I, I loved her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in West Side Story (one of the only actual Puerto Ricans in the cast), I loved her on the great PBS children’s series, The Electric Company, I loved her as Sister Peter Marie in the gritty HBO series Oz, and I love her as Lydia in the fabulous reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time.

I read Moreno’s wonderful memoir a few years ago and jumped at the chance to talk to Mariem Pérez Riera, the talented director of the brand new documentary about the actress that premieres today, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (there’s a funny story in the film about how the doc got that title). Riera has created an indelible portrait of the fabulous star that is one of the most honest and entertaining biographical documentaries I’ve ever seen. Like Moreno, Riera is an actress who was born in Puerto Rico and who, at the age of nine, starred in the acclaimed film, The Two Worlds of Angelita. Her first documentary, Cuando lo pequeño se hace grande, about the Puerto Ricans who fought against the US Navy presence on the island of Vieques, won awards at film festivals around the world, as have many of her later films. Riera was the perfect person to tell Rita Moreno’s fascinating story.

Over a career that has endured more than seven decades, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and beloved actor, one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) Award Winners of our time. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, Moreno and her mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno got a movie contract and was cast as any ethnic minority that the studio needed filled, be it Polynesian, Native American, or Egyptian. Despite becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award, the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for it illuminates Moreno’s humor and grace, as well as some of the lesser-known struggles she faced on her path to stardom, including horrendous sexism, a toxic long-term relationship with Marlon Brando, and a serious depression. Moreno’s talent and resilience triumphed over adversity as she broke barriers, fought for representation, and forged the path for new generations of artists. This winter she’ll appear in Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story, this time with an appropriately Latinx cast. I spoke with director Mariem Pérez Riera via Zoom.

Danny Miller: I loved this documentary so much and was stunned at how honest Rita Moreno was in front of the camera. Were there things you learned about her during the making of this film that surprised you?

Mariem Pérez Riera

Mariem Pérez Riera: Oh, yes. One thing that surprised me was how important she feels therapy has been to her life and career, and how it helped her become the person that she is today. She talked about that a lot in our interviews. 

Despite some of the enormous success she had early in her career (Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and, of course, West Side Story), I was still shocked at some of the abuse she had to suffer through in Hollywood before and even after appearing in those A-list films. I think many other people would have cracked under the pressure of that and left the business. How do you account for Rita Moreno’s ability to survive and thrive against all odds?

Moreno in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The King and I (1956), and West Side Story (1961)

Honestly, she is a person with amazing stamina. She just wouldn’t quit no matter what was thrown her way. I think that partly comes from starting out as a dancer. She was like an athlete and had incredible amounts of energy and discipline. I mean, to see the energy she has today at 89, it’s really incredible. I’m half her age and I can’t keep up! 

Like so many people, I think the “America” sequence in West Side Story is one of the greatest musical numbers ever put on film, but I’m so glad that she discussed the painful aspects of that in the documentary. It always struck me, especially after reading her book and seeing what a strong connection she still has to her beloved Puerto Rico, how awful it must have been for her to sing so negatively about the place of her birth. I hadn’t realized that she was responsible for forcing them to change the original opening lyrics of that song in the Broadway play (“Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases), but even with the change it must have been tough that Anita was so down on the place. 

Absolutely. And that’s why I really wanted to show that in the documentary, because I don’t think a lot of people understand that. They see this amazing Oscar-winning film, and Rita’s fantastic performance in it, but they don’t understand the dichotomy of the message the film gave to our community. It’s kind of a different story for us. 

Rita Moreno and George Chakiris performing “America” in West Side Story

I mean, as great as it is, in the end it’s still a story written by a bunch of white dudes.

Exactly. At the time she was not able to share these concerns with the public so it was important for me to give her that chance in the documentary. As great as her success was in the film, parts of it were very difficult for her, including some of the casting decisions. I think that’s why she’s so delighted to be in the new film with its largely Puerto Rican cast. 

I love how she talks about her own journey as a little girl from Puerto Rico to New York as a kind of reverse Wizard of Oz — she left the colorful, magical fantasy of Puerto Rico for dreary black-and-white New York. I’m so glad that in West Side Story she was at least able to have those opening lyrics changed. As a Puerto Rican friend of mine said to me the other day, “No living Puerto Rican would ever call that place an ‘ugly island’.” 

Absolutely. She knew that she had to sing the song, and it’s a magnificent number. But it weighed on her.  

Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno

I got to talk to some of the original West Side Story actors when there was a 60th anniversary screening at this year’s virtual TCM Festival and I was surprised at Moreno’s honesty in talking so openly about her displeasure at Natalie Wood’s casting in the film. Not against her personally, but just how wrong it was to cast all of these people who had no connection to the culture.

She’s actually one of the executive producers on the new version of West Side Story and believe me, the casting of that film was a huge deal for her. As much as she loves having been part of the original, she was adamant about the new film not making the same mistakes. 

She’s such a remarkable person, and I’m so glad this intimate portrait of her is now available for all to see. In addition to all that we learn from Rita herself and the amazing people who are interviewed in the film such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Héctor Elizondo, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Mitzi Gaynor, George Chakiris, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, and Norman Lear, I loved the amazing animation with the paper dolls. So effective!

That was part of my first pitch when I thought of making this documentary. I had read her book many times and could see how this little girl, Rosita Dolores Alverio, was always inside of her. I used to play with paper dolls as a child, and so did Rita, and they are pretty fragile. I wanted to show that part of her, the vulnerable and insecure child who everyone wanted to dress and act and be a certain way. And yet Rita Moreno was able to triumph over all of that and come to discover who she really was. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It opened today in actual THEATERS and is also available for streaming. 


–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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