“If we thought there was no place for us in this world of the arts that we wanted to get into, we could look up and see Rita.”
After being teased for what seemed like decades, Steven Spielberg’s passion project, a reimagining of West Side Story, has finally arrived with all of its bombastic majesty and soulful heart. The dance numbers are energetic, the music is sublime and the aesthetics bring that world to life in a way that’s impossible to not get swept up by. While some were skeptical about the need for another version of the hit Broadway musical, virtually all who have walked away from the movie have done so being won over by Spielberg’s and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s interpretation of the sadly still relevant material.
Without a doubt, one of the most noticeable differences this time around is the presence of original cast member Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film version) as Valentina, a character written specifically for this remake. What feels like would otherwise be a throwaway cameo ends up being a character of great importance that’s brought to poignant life by the actress. Each of Valentina’s scenes ends up being a celebration of Moreno herself, whose body of work has been heralded by many and for which she’s earned every kind of accolade under the sun. It’s that career which became the subject of a fascinating documentary told earlier this year called Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, which showed the legendary performer at her most honest and up front.
Featuring interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eva Longoria, among many others, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It looks at the life of one of the 20th century’s most iconic and indelible entertainers. From being the first Latina to win an Oscar to her tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando, documentary filmmaker Mariem Pérez Rieradives delves right into the storied life and career of a woman who still has plenty to give and more to say.
Moreno’s career milestones are by now, legendary. Still, the way her career played out is one which gives the documentary such truth and insight into the dues Moreno had to pay as well as the strides she made. There were her days as a contract player at MGM when she had to play every kind of exotic girl imaginable, regardless of whether or not she was the same ethnicity of the character, and the times her thoughts on the scenes she was playing were instantly shut down by directors. A few years later when Moreno did hit pay-dirt with West Side Story, winning an Oscar in the process, she surprised everyone by turning down subsequent offers after having had enough of being typecast over the years. For her part, Moreno remains candid and good humored about her career, speaking about riskier projects such as The Ritz and switching to television with the groundbreaking series The Electric Company with the pride of a fighter who persevered. It all makes for irresistible moments to behold and thrusts this legend into an even greater realm than before.
It’s when we get to the woman behind the entertainer that the documentary becomes a personal and moving experience. The various episodes Moreno encountered left an undeniable impact and makes for a life with enough ups and downs far greater than any role she ever could have played. There are the early dark moments of Moreno and her mother leaving her older brother (with whom she only recently reconnected with) behind in Puerto Rico when they came to America and being raped by her agent when she was just starting out in Hollywood, a fact she didn’t acknowledge to herself for a number of years. There’s her tempestuous relationship with Marlon Brando, which was so stormy, she literally used Elvis Presley to make him jealous. Moments discussing Moreno’s introduction to therapy and the birth of her activism in the 60s and 70s are likewise noteworthy for showing how the actress became the firecracker we see today. When the topic of her late husband and their decades-long marriage comes up, we see Moreno at her most vulnerable as she get teary-eyed and asks to take a break as she reflects on the man she shared her life with. Through it all what remains is Moreno’s trademark energy fighting against the hardships of her life and giving way to the peace she’s been able to attain today.
Documentary-wise, Pérez Rieradives’ film opts for the typical talking head series of interviews, many of which feature performers influenced by Moreno herself. Visually, the film uses the recurring symbol of animated paper dolls to illustrate the various milestones in its subject’s life. The use of the dolls is not only fun to behold, but mirrors the youthful exuberance which Moreno has maintained throughout her years. The actress is about to turn 90 this month and her energy, wit and drive remain that of someone in their 30s. It’s impossible to not be awe inspired by this fearless performer who embodies the kind of joy and wisdom all of us wish we could achieve. The vivaciousness the actress shows didn’t come naturally and certainly took a fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. But I feel it’s safe to say they only made Moreno’s natural fire burn even brighter.