Documentary director goes behind the scenes of Rita Moreno’s legendary career

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews a new Rita Moreno doc (Part 1)

Rita Moreno is one of the few true living legends of stage and screen, joining the rare club of “EGOT” recipients of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.

This week, her life and career are chronicled in the new documentary, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,” which hits movie theaters nationwide Friday, June 18.

“It’s a full-circle moment for her career,” Director Mariem Pérez Riera told WTOP. “It can’t be better timed with her being in ‘West Side Story,’ but also the release of ‘In the Heights,’ we have so much happening for us Puerto Ricans and the Latinx community.”

Pérez Riera conducted three interviews with Moreno over the course of a year.

“I followed her in different places: in her house in Berkeley, on the set of ‘One Day at a Time’ in Culver City in L.A., but also I went with her to Washington and New York,” Pérez Riera said. “I interviewed her on three different occasions for four hours each time, so I had 12 hours of interviews with her, plus all the rest.”

What did she learn about Moreno’s personality?

“She’s very honest, very true to herself,” Pérez Riera said. “She’s like you see: very nice, very charming, and she can also be blunt about things that maybe can shock some people. She likes to shock! She’s an amazing woman. The secret to her energy is that she takes a lot of naps. That’s what keeps her going at almost 90 years old.”

Born in Puerto Rico in 1931, Moreno emigrated to New York in a boat at age 5.

“They needed a lot of Puerto Ricans to come to New York to work, like her mom as a seamstress in the factories,” Pérez Riera said. “Her mom needed a change. She wanted to make more money and Puerto Rico was not a place she could do what she wanted to do. So, [Moreno] left her little brother and all of her family in Puerto Rico and moved only with her mom to New York.”

Before long, she was on stage entertaining audiences.

“At the age of 8 she was already dancing and being part of different amateur recitals,” Pérez Riera said. “As a teenager she continued dancing and was basically the bread winner for her family, for her mom and new husband. It was in one of these recitals that she was discovered by this agent who gave her an opportunity to get in a meeting with one of the great producers in Hollywood.”

Thus, she was cast in such classic Hollywood musicals as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “The King & I” (1956), but it was a double-edged sword of playing stereotypical ethnic roles.

“She was playing any character who had an accent,” Pérez Riera said. “She had the ‘ethnical accent,’ which was the same accent if she would play a Latina, Indian, Polynesian. … For a long time, that’s all she was doing and she wasn’t happy because she knew she had a lot of talent and could do a lot more than that, but that’s all she was offered.”

She spiraled into depression, including a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando.

“They dated for eight years,” Pérez Riera said. “She ended her relationship with him because she got pregnant and had an abortion. At that moment, abortions weren’t legal, so she had to do it and almost died by getting an abortion in a way that is not safe. She also tried to commit suicide. That’s when she decided, this is it. A month after she tried to commit suicide is when she won her Oscar.”

Her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961) made her the first Latina to win an Academy Award, singing subversive lines like, “Life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America.”

“It’s a movie that is bittersweet with Puerto Ricans,” Pérez Riera said. “On the one hand, we’re shown to the world that we exist. On the other hand, the way we’re portrayed is not the right way. … It was very hard for Rita, because she’s playing a character that’s singing, ‘Puerto Rico, let it sink back into the ocean,’ which is something she didn’t want to say but she had to.”

After her Oscar, she declined further stereotypical film roles and turned to TV and theater.

“She didn’t make a movie for seven years,” Pérez Riera said. “She got married, she had a baby, she was in ‘Electric Company,’ ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘The Rockford Files.’ That’s when she won her Grammy and two Emmys. In theater, she did ‘The Ritz’ and won her Tony, so that’s how she became an EGOT, thanks to saying no to playing the same stereotypical roles in movies.”

Today, a new generation has discovered her in the TV sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

“A lot of young people love her in that show and maybe don’t know all of her career before that, which is an amazing career,” Pérez Riera said. “That’s why they should go watch this documentary because they can see how she started and what she’s gone through. … It is now in her 80s that she finally gets to be who she really is and not trying to be who everyone else wants her to be.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews a new Rita Moreno doc (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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