Rita Moreno reflects on tenacity, her career and Latinx representation: "Where is our 'Moonlight'?"

Filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera and the star herself spoke to Salon about making the new Sundance Rita Moreno biopic

By Gary M. Kramer

Published January 29, 2021 5:00PM (EST)

Rita Moreno in "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It" (Maramara Films)
Rita Moreno in "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It" (Maramara Films)

Rita Moreno is a living legend. The Puerto Rican-born actress, singer, dancer, and television star came to America as a child and wanted to be a movie star since she saw her first film. Not only did Moreno become one — winning an Oscar in 1962 for "West Side Story" — but now a documentary, "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It," directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, chronicles her life and career.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, traces Moreno's life, starting with her 87th birthday party, and flashing back to her childhood in Puerto Rico, her arrival in New York, and her experience meeting Louis B. Mayer at the Waldorf Astoria for a Hollywood contract. Moving to Los Angeles, Moreno takes a series of "dusky maiden" roles in films that play on stereotypes about race, ethnicity and gender. She was miserable, treated like a sex object — or just an object on one production. 

Eventually, she become a trailblazer; Moreno is the only Latinx EGOT winner.

"Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It" features interviews with the actress's costars, including Justina Machado ("One Day at a Time") and Morgan Freeman ("The Electric Company"), as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gloria Estefan, among others. Pérez Riera addresses Moreno's abusive relationship with Marlon Brando, her abortion, her suicide attempt, and her marriage with Leonard Gordon, which was not as picture perfect as folks believed. 

Pérez Riera' heartfelt documentary is also a love letter, emphasizing the inspiring performer being unfiltered. (In the first few minutes, Moreno likens a banana to an elephant's penis.) "Rita Moreno" details her activism as well as her candor speaking out about women's issues, and the filmmaker peppers these moments with clips from various performances as well as acceptance speeches. 

Pérez Riera and Moreno spoke with Salon about their fabulous documentary. 

Mariem, we all have stories about watching Rita. What can you say about forming your interest in Rita's life and career?

Mariem Pérez Riera: I'm from Puerto Rico, and Rita is an icon on our island. I knew she was the first Puerto Rican to win an Oscar. Every Puerto Rican wanted a piece of her. She was an inspiration and what I — and many people — aspire to. When I became a filmmaker, I wrote a film, "Maldeamores," ["Lovesickness"] and we wanted Rita to play one of the characters. We wrote it for her. We weren't able to reach her, but she's been an inspiration for a long time.

Can you talk about choosing the interview subjects you did to contextualize Rita's experiences? I love one interviewee's observation that Rita has "authority and honesty," but also that Justina Machado playfully calls Rita a "diva," and Eva Longoria shouts, "Hey you, guys!" [Moreno's famous shout from "Electric Company"]

Pérez Riera: I wanted those interviewees to talk not about Rita, or experiences with Rita, but their own experiences. Eva talks about how in her career, she was also asked to play roles with an accent or "spice." When I approached Eva, she said, "Of course, I want to be part of the documentary, but I don't know Rita that well." I said, "It's more about your experience and what you have gone through, which shows me what Rita went through is the same thing happening nowadays." Justina knows Rita well, and it's great that she talks about her as a diva and someone who likes to shock people.

Rita, I love that you are so raucous! 

Rita Moreno: Just ask Justina! She says I don't have a filter and never knows what I am going to say. She makes me laugh. One of our favorite things on "One Day" is when Lydia and Penelope have a fight. We get so Puerto Rican — eyes flashing, hands going! I love that Lydia is religious when it suits her. It's hilarious when she talks about sex with her husband and has the picture of the Pope in her tiny room. It's such a Catholic thing!

The most poignant and inspiring aspect of the doc is watching you develop your self-worth. Rita, can you talk about your outlook on life and how you self-motivate?

Moreno: I don't have to bring that out. It's so much a part of me and in my DNA. I'm one of those people who always sees a glass half full. It's who I am. The moment I was born, that's who I was. It would be nice to take credit, but it's just there. I'm an energetic, funny person. I love to make people laugh. I feel comfortable with people. It's something I've had since I was a little baby girl. I used to dance for grandpa. He would put on records — rhumba or salsa — and say, "Dance Rosinita!" I loved it. Because I loved moving and jumping around. But I also loved the attention and praise. I remember thinking, "This is good! I like this!"

That's why coming to America was such a jolt — it was so tough for so long. I couldn't understand why my mother thought this was the land of opportunity. I didn't see any of that. I saw her slaving away at two jobs at once. We had a hard time. When I started going to school, neighborhood gangs were forming, and they were the kids I was running into on the way to school. So, I had to find a new route, so they wouldn't attack me. Here's the rub — children are very tender creatures, no matter how noisy, bratty, or sweet they are. If you are told often as a child that you don't have value or worth or that you're a "spic," you believe it. And the problem is I didn't go to my mom, because I instinctively knew there was nothing that she could do about it. If I cried, I cried on the sly.

Rita, you talk candidly in the film about difficult moments in your life, including your abusive relationship with Brando, as well as the discrimination you faced on set, yet your struggles seem to have empowered you. Can you talk about that?  

Moreno: You either sink or swim, and instinctively I chose to swim no matter how hard or painful it was. That's part of my DNA. When I was working, I wasn't happy because I was playing stock character parts. I didn't work much at all, and it was really depressing not to get the jobs. I'd ask my agent to submit me for different kinds of parts, but unless it was Native, or an Egyptian girl, they wouldn't even see me. That was so heartbreaking. I felt so helpless. And after feeling that for such a long time, you get depressed angry and hurt. You don't start out to be a role model. You fight the bad parts of your life the best you can, and sometimes, the best is not enough. I had a hard time. I'm proud of myself. Somehow, some way, the gods were in alignment, and when I thought everything was over, Norman Lear steps into the picture.  

Mariem, you include some terrific clips in the film from Rita's film work to behind the scenes at her TV show, "One Day," to her performances, activism, and speeches. Can you talk about assembling the film and finding its heart?

Pérez Riera: It wasn't easy. We had so much material. It took us many months to do it, and I am so happy I share my credit as an editor with Kevin Klauber, who helped me find the balance. I wanted the documentary to have those up and down moments, because her career and her life are like that. You see her winning an award, but she was also dealing with a suicide attempt. I wanted to show clips with the notion of what she went through. When you see her clip with Marlon Brando, or the gang trying to rape her character in "West Side Story" — you know what was on her mind at the time. I wanted every clip to have some connection with her personal life. 

I love the personal moments of Rita at home. Can you describe how you captured Rita in interviews, observational footage, and private moments?

Pérez Riera: I wanted to show her being so beautiful in the interviews, but also see the contrast of her waking up and preparing her own breakfast, or talking to her grandson, to see how she really is. She gave us her house keys so we could go early in the morning and set up everything before she woke up, so we were there when she would go into her kitchen in her pajamas. I always wanted the documentary to show Rita the star who has all these awards, but to show Rita the human being, a woman, who like everybody else, fights so many wars inside of her. I wanted to show her vulnerabilities and the fragile Rita that I could see on the set of "One Day" walking without makeup to work, or the woman after 15 hours of work would drive home and do it again the next day. To see an icon "normal" in a way. When I started to do the documentary, I realized it was important to show her as a woman, because she represented every woman and what we all go through — in terms of sexual harassment, and abuse and having to working three times more to show we are capable.

There is a growing movement for Latinx representation and having the community tell their stories. Can you talk about being a Puerto Rican filmmaker making a film about a Puerto Rican?

Pérez Riera: I am lucky and honored to be able to make this documentary, and I hope it opens more doors for me. I am so glad [producer] Brent Miller decided this documentary should be told by a Latinx woman. But I hope to I get opportunities to make any documentary and any movie. Not just because I am Puerto Rican, or a woman, or Latinx, but because of my talent. That goes with every woman and every Latinx. We are still put in a box. But there are so many white men who make movies about women. Why can white men make movies about other cultures? We should be open to Latinx stories other than about Mexicans crossing the border. There should be movies about Latinx who are successful and educated. 

Rita, you easily became a role model for women, the Latinx community, and many others. What observations do you have about that?

Moreno: We still have to do our movie. Where's is our "Moonlight"? It's a mystery to me. 

Gloria [Calderon Kellett, the creator of "One Day at a Time"] once posited that one problem that the Hispanic community has is that we all come from different countries — Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina and so forth. And in an interesting and depressing way, we have siloed ourselves. We don't have the support from each other that we need. I don't know how that will change, and it certainly won't change in my lifetime. It's really depressing. 

Did you ever have the opportunity to create your own projects? 

Moreno: It's so frustrating. I'm 89 — which shows how long I've been living with this. It was not happening then. I don't know that anybody got to do that [create projects]. Truly, I felt so hopeless. I'm not a writer. I'm an actor. Writing something never occurred to me. I had wonderful ideas. I have one left and I'm going to submit it to Norman [Lear] soon. Being 89, I have one foot on a banana peel.

Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer