Rita Moreno, Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It, Sundance Film Festival, The Electric Company, West Side Story
My first impression of Sundance is a bit too surreal. I’ve heard all of the stories from critics and filmmakers alike. I’ve read the reports, heard the cherished rumors. And yet, this is my first experience.
No lines. No waiting in the cold and the snow. I miss the anticipation of hanging out with the colleagues I know or making new friends along the way. I’m actually paying more attention to everyone’s social media posts, using that as my gauge, my attempt at creating and stoking a sense of virtual connection, but it’s not providing enough of that anticipatory sense of the familiar.
The only thing to do is to settle in for what we’re always here for…the films. Day Two is my official day one. At least I get to pretend that maybe I was traveling, got delayed along the way, but I’ve finally arrived and I’m ready to do this thing and do it right.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It speaks immediately and directly to the truth about representation. It is fast, seemingly minutes into the documentary, we hear Moreno delve into what happened as she made her way to her first Hollywood interview. She, as a teenager, prepped by making herself in the image of Elizabeth Taylor, the closest performer to her, the easiest one that she could transform herself into. They were both teenagers (beautiful, somehow impossibly so and larger than life, although in Moreno’s case that was only a dream at that point), and she looked up to her, so it was no problem doing her hair and makeup in Taylor’s style.
For Moreno, there was no one else in the industry who looked like her.
It is fascinating to hear her share this anecdote. Black folks have complicated issues with passing. As a Puerto Rican woman, she’s embracing the opportunity, knowing full-well that she has her eyes on a larger prize. We hear her talk about relationships (like her love affair with Marlon Brando, an off and on-again dynamic that lasted for seven years) and her evolving social and civil awareness, complete with knowledge and willingness to use the opportunity to get close and involved in the struggles of the world and the times.
It was surprising and instructive to hear Moreno explore the complicated relationship she had with Anita, her character in West Side Story. She won an Academy Award for her portrayal of this character, which jumpstarted her iconic status in the industry, but Anita represented an ideal that needed to be embodied. Anita respected herself, speaking up and out at seemingly every turn. She was unwilling to be cowed by the boys in the community gangs; she dared them (and everyone else) to see her for the woman she wanted to be.
Moreno took on some inner part of Anita that couldn’t have been intended by the white men who wrote it – going from Jerome Robbins (playwright and co-director of the film), Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book), and Ernest Lehman (screenwriter) all the way back to the uncredited William Shakespeare whose Romeo and Juliet is the overall basis for West Side Story – and explored a piece of the Puerto Rican experience, a female Puerto Rican life against the backdrop of an ill-fitting American Dream. How was it to win an Oscar, but be relegated to performing forced and exaggerated accents in casting rooms full of white men who didn’t hear, know or care what people from those places may have sounded like?
Yet, Anita came to represent, for Moreno, authentic, because of her voice and the power of her presence. Which allowed Moreno to provide a real and more meaningful example for generations of Latina performers and others to come, which Others always have to do. Think Sidney Poitier.
The result though was that for seven years after West Side Story, she took on no work in films because all she got were Latinas in gang flicks. Sound familiar? But she expanded herself and the idea of success could look like. As a child, I knew of her, not from West Side Story, but The Electric Company, where she worked alongside Morgan Freeman, paving the way for a future Black film critic to think about how exciting it was to have watched these greats in such an accessible space.
The sideline opportunities, singing with the Muppets, led to other awards. Emmys. Grammys. She wouldn’t settle and she would daringly preach her own story as a sermon. She earned a Tony for an embrace of Latin stereotypes, owning and shattering them all at once. And without drawing undue attention to the effort, all of a sudden Moreno had seized a crowning achievement. The EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). It happened because at the end of the day, as Whoopi Goldberg says in the film, it was about the work. Working. Not the competitive goal it is today.
Director Mariem Pérez Riera shrewdly insinuates social commentary into Moreno’s tale of fame and glory. We hear, first hand, of her mistreatment during encounters with powerful men in Hollywood. There is nothing new or startling in these recollections, but Moreno’s perspective gets juxtaposed, in one key instance, alongside Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. A constant thread emerges – as Moreno seemingly remains physically unchanged through the years – of Moreno speaking out, standing up and with others. From the March on Washington to abortion rights protests to participating in #MeToo events, she’s there and it feels common and universally accessible. She never loses sight of what matters and she’s willing to take a hard look at herself, to work on being her own role model.
When we tell our stories, Lin-Manuel Miranda begins, and it sounds like everything we’ve heard for the last decade or more. Whether we’re talking about people of color or the LGBTQ+ community or folks with disabilities, the need to share truths matter. Let us speak from our own authentic places. See us for who we are.
I saw Moreno last year at the Critics Choice Awards. It was my first time at the event (or any event of that scale and scope) and I didn’t dare to approach her. I didn’t need to. Being in that room with her, seeing how others (like Quentin Tarantino) were as in awe of her as I was, meant that she figured out how to be seen for who she is.
Riera’s film allows us a glimpse of Moreno that feels unfiltered, but she nimbly and quite critically remixes Moreno, merging her with other iconic peers, like Nina Simone, who we hear on the soundtrack singing How It Feels To Be Free. The links are strong, because what it takes to gain that status is recognition that you’ve just got to go for it.