It’s all baloney. So says Rita Moreno about the hoopla surrounding an upcoming birthday in the opening seconds of a new documentary about the Puerto Rican-born actress, dancer and singer (except she uses a less printable, more colorful synonym for baloney).
Moreno’s comment sets the tone for what turns out to be a funny, occasionally foul-mouthed and startlingly frank portrait of the 89-year-old performer who anchors “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” with excerpts from a long, sit-down interview in which she discusses, with refreshing candor, a laundry list of topics.
These include being typecast as what she calls the “dusky,” heavily accented exotic in early movie roles such as Ula in “Seven Cities of Gold” and Tuptim in “The King and I.”
Moreno also talks about her years-long relationship with actor Marlon Brando; a subsequent pregnancy, abortion and suicide attempt; a rape by her agent; and the rampant sexism and sexual harassment she endured in the Hollywood studio system.
Intercut with these interview segments – which include extensive discussion of her breakthrough role, Anita in “West Side Story,” and the challenge of bucking ethnic stereotypes – are copious film clips, sound bites from speaking engagements, cute paper-doll animations, backstage scenes during the filming of the “One Day at a Time” sitcom remake she starred in for several seasons on Netflix and the de rigueur talking heads singing her praises.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hector Elizondo, Norman Lear and film historian Annette Insdorf are among those delivering encomiums along with family members and friends.
Her career follows a fascinating trajectory: According to Insdorf, it didn’t just take off and rise after “West Side Story,” but “widened.” The first Latina actress to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony – the “EGOT” superfecta – Moreno doesn’t just seem to keep getting better and better but more and more interesting.
Who of a certain age cannot recall her catchphrase from the PBS kids show “The Electric Company,” shouted out with a musical bellow: Hey, you guuuuys! (Moreno obliges with a throaty rendition.)
Lear, who produced “One Day at a Time,” makes a comment about Moreno that pretty much sums up the appeal of this charming film and its subject: “One gets lost in her personality, happily, and feels better for being with her.”
Lear delivered that comment at some awards ceremony. Perhaps the Kennedy Center Honors, which celebrated Moreno’s achievements in 2015? There are so many accolades in this film, it’s difficult to keep track.
As film scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner puts it, Moreno isn’t defined by the obstacles she’s overcome, but there is a question left hanging and unanswered in her tantalizing life story: Who might the little girl born Rosita Moreno – a pint-size diva who dreamed of being famous – have become if those obstacles hadn’t been there?
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