When the revival of One Day at a Time premiered in 2017, I had the chance to interview Rita Moreno. Towards the end of our chat she told me I had a good vocabulary. “That’s it,” I thought. “I can retire now. I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career.”
That’s because Moreno is a legend. She is the rare EGOT winner—having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Moreno will tell you she’s actually a KEGOT winner because she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. Most known, perhaps, for her iconic turn as Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story (for which she won an Oscar), Moreno’s career has spanned over seven decades. She co-starred with Morgan Freeman in The Electric Company (winning a Grammy for the show’s album). She guested on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files (how she won back-to-back Emmy Awards). She starred on Broadway, winning a Tony for 1975’s The Ritz. That’s not even counting Screen Actors Guild Awards, ALMA Awards, NAACP Awards and countless others. It’s so easy to celebrate Moreno and her incredible career. Now 89, she will next be seen in December in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It tells the story of Moreno’s trajectory from when she moved from Puerto Rico to New York when she was five years old to almost the present day. The documentary shows her accepting the Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association in 2018. Much has already been covered in interviews and in Moreno’s own biography, published in 2011, but there’s something truly special about having Moreno guide us through the story of her life. There’s nothing fancy about the way director Mariem Pérez Riera interviewed her subject, but clearly Moreno is totally comfortable and at ease. Moreno, who has been an activist for decades, has never been one to mince words or avoid controversy but you can almost sense her relief that now she has the opportunity to be completely open about all aspects of her life and career.
The movie, which boasts Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda as executive producers, features co-stars of her past like George Chakiris (Bernardo in West Side Story) and present like Justina Machado (her daughter on One Day at a Time). There’s also Héctor Elizondo, Gloria Estefan, Tom Fontana, Morgan Freeman, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Terrence McNally and Karen Olivo. Riera deftly weaves their commentary in and around Moreno’s interviews, creating a nice juxtaposition between how others see Moreno and how she sees herself. They all gush about the legendary EGOT winner and rightly so. Moreno and her career are inspirations to so many. “She can do it. How close can I get?” Miranda wonders. It’s hard to discuss her without being effusive.
But what truly sets the movie apart is Moreno’s unwavering honesty. While obviously proud of her accomplishments, she doesn’t gush about herself. It would have been so easy for the movie to have been a puff piece. But Moreno refuses to let that happen. She’s candid about the horrific racism she’s faced in her career. As a young actress, she was cast as the generic “ethnic” girl, be it Native American, Polynesian, Egyptian—really any ethnicity that wasn’t white. She also developed an all-purpose accent to match. In so many movies she was cast as the “Indian girl” who was the mistress of the white man. “That’s all I was offered. I had to make a living,” she explains.
The confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony occurs during the same time as the filming of the movie. Ford’s testimony is set against the sexism and misogyny Moreno experienced. Moreno, whom one executive described as a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,” was often cast as a sex object. It’s not hard to make the leap from how Moreno was treated to how Britney Spears was treated to how Christine Blasey Ford was treated. It’s an unfortunate throughline that will remind viewers how far we still have to go.
There was the studio executive who said to her “You know, I’d like to fuck you,” at a fancy Hollywood soiree. There was the agent who raped her. Despite her youth at the time, Moreno doesn’t give herself a pass. “I giggled like an idiot,” was her response to the executive’s vulgar comments, and she confessed that the man remained her agent for many years.
Moreno is equally frank and unforgiving regarding her relationships. She had a seven-year relationship with Marlon Brando, whom she describes as “anathema to my life.” Talk about a good vocabulary. “He was the daddy that I couldn’t please,” she says. Their turbulent relationship was damaging. “I think of it now, I think what was to love?” she says.
The most surprising moment comes from Moreno discussing her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, whom she married in 1965. Gordon passed away in 2010 and so many interviewed in the film, including their daughter Fernanda Gordon Fisher, thought their marriage of 45 years was a happy one. Moreno admits she felt relief when her husband passed away: “It’s over. I don’t have to answer to anyone anymore. Living alone is pretty neat. Especially when you like who you are living with.”
Living in your truth has become a catchy phrase, but Moreno is the epitome of it. She is the wonderful, amazing sum of her experiences. We are all so fortunate she decided to go for it.
Director: Mariem Pérez Riera
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).