NEW YORK — Rita Moreno emigrated with her mother from Puerto Rico at age five. By six, she was dancing at Greenwich Village nightclubs. By 16, she was working full time. By 20, she was in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
In the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” Norman Lear says: “I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno.”
In the decades that followed, Moreno won a Tony, a Grammy, an Emmy and and Oscar, for “West Side Story.” (Her entire acceptance speech: “I can’t believe it.” ) With seemingly infinite spiritedness, she has epitomized the best of show business while also being a victim to its cruelties. That has made Moreno, who co-stars in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story remake, a heroic figure to Latinos, and to others. “I have never given up,” she said in a recent interview by Zoom from her home in Berkeley, California.
The reason for the conversation was Mariem Pérez Riera’s intimate and invigorating documentary, which opens in theaters Friday after playing virtually at the Sundance Film Festival and in an outdoor premiere at the Tribeca Festival. The film opens with Moreno preparing a Cuban themed party for her 87th birthday. “And I demand costumes,” the screen legend says with a smile.
But as upbeat as Moreno remains, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” also deals frankly with the many turbulences of Moreno’s life: being positioned as the “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” and the stereotyped casting that followed; a long and painful relationship with Marlon Brando; the abuse of her agent; a confining marriage.
Moreno was likewise forthright in an interview with The Associated Press while occasionally reaching for a tissue for springtime allergies. “All that cocaine,” the 89-year-old joked. Remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: What struck me most watching the film is that despite going through what would defeat or embitter most, you seem to have emerged with such joy and appreciation for life.
MORENO: I have a very strong constitution. Maybe you inherit it. Maybe it’s due to learning how to cope with my tumultuous life through psychotherapy. I really credit that for helping me through some really, really bad times. My mom was like that, too. And you know what? I have a feeling that a lot of people who are outliers have strong constitutions because it’s either sink or swim, right? And I think you learn early on in life that swimming is preferable to sinking.
AP: How early did you learn that?
MORENO: The first test, I think, was learning English in kindergarten when I didn’t know a word, not a word. That’s the first thing that happened to me literally when I came to this country. Children are impressively resilient. And then, in a way, they’re also extremely tender and fragile. I think the reason I ending up having such a hard time in life is that I ran into a racial bias very early on. When you’re young — I mean 5, 6, 7 — and people call you bad names like “spic” or “garlic mouth” or “gold tooth,” like in “West Side Story,” you’re tender, you’re a child. You believe these things. You believe that you’re not worthy. You don’t know why, but you know that there’s something wrong with you.
AP: Do you remember the first time you performed?
MORENO: Oh, yeah. It was for my grandpa in Puerto Rico to a rhumba record. Shaking my little booty. And he loved it. He was clapping in time to the music. And I was thinking: Wow, this is fun. And he’s loving this. I like this a lot. I mean, I was born to be a performer. I think some people are just wired that way. I was just born to perform and please people — and that got out of hand, too.
AP: You said you wanted to be completely honest in the film but were there some things that were difficult to be candid about? You speak about being raped by your agent.
MORENO: Oh, yeah. That was difficult. And talking about my husband (cardiologist Lenny Gordon, who died in 2010) was difficult in a different way. In so many ways he was a remarkable man. He was loving. I’ve never seen a more devoted grandfather and father and husband. But what happened with us is that he was a controlling person. I have a theory that when some people have relationships, they make a contract with each other that is never spoken or verbalized. In our case, it was I’ll be the little girl and I’ll be charming and I will please you. But you have to be my daddy and take care of me and protect me. That was our agreement. It was never spoken. But that’s what it was. I didn’t realize it until one day I wanted to start growing up and the marriage was not working. It’s so much not a part of who I am. Plus, I was brought up that way. You have to please the man. But I suffered a lot. I remember times when I’d say I was going to go to the grocery store and I’d go somewhere to park the car and cry.
AP: Your life seems to be this long process of unlearning the wrong things you were told about yourself.
MORENO: What a wonderful way to put it. You’re absolutely on the money. I had to learn that I was a person of value like all other people. But it’s very difficult when you learn something from childhood. It’s not as though I came to this country when I was 20 and learned something different. I was a little girl and you’re very impressionable. You believe that you don’t have value. You don’t know why you don’t have it, but you believe it. And, man, that is so hard to get rid of. You know, there’s still a little girl with me, but the difference is that I can now send her to her room. There’s still a nasty little girl in me who says, “I told you that couldn’t happen.” And I’m now able to say: “Go to your room!”
AP: Your central therapy session followed years with Marlon Brando. In your memoir, you spoke about him as your greatest lover but your time with him was torturous.
MORENO: Here’s what’s hilarious to me. It was he who said to me: “You need help. You need therapy.” So the lunatic is telling the crazy woman that she needs help! (Laughs). But he was right! He was right. I remember the day he said that to me, I thought: “Yeah, but he’s crazy as a loon!”
AP: It’s not everyone that dates Elvis just to make Brando jealous, as you did. Are you sometimes amazed by the life you’ve led?
MORENO: Yes. But I have to say that after I saw the documentary for the very first time — my daughter and I saw it together — I left the screening room saying, “Wow, that’s quite a life I’ve led!” (Laughs) But you don’t think that way about yourself. Very likely, if you had something like this done about you, you would also say the same thing about yourself.
AP: In watching what has and hasn’t changed in that time, what stands out to you? You were there when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
MORENO: I feel extremely fortunate that I’m still around to see the sea changes that are taking place. I’ll be 90 in December and I don’t think I’m going to see the women’s movement really progress more because I won’t be around. But I’ve seen it change. I’ve seen a change in such meaningful ways and I’m grateful for that. What still concerns me mightily and profoundly is that Hispanics haven’t gotten their hold on our profession, I don’t know what the hell is wrong. I don’t know what is not working right. The Black community has done incredibly and I have nothing but the deepest admiration for the Black professional community. They’ve done it and I think we can take some lessons from them. But where is our “Moonlight”? Why are we not advancing?
AP: Do you have any answers?
MORENO: We tend in this country to silo ourselves. We are Puerto Rican and then we are also Mexican. We are also Argentinian. We are Spanish Spain. And somehow those twains haven’t really met and coalesced the way we need to. That may be the answer. But it’s very complicated. People forget that we’re not just Hispanic. We are from other countries. Maybe the answer, or the beginning of the answer, lies in a summit, some kind of summit. I’m not going to see that. My age forbids it. But I sure as hell hope something happens. I can’t believe we’re still struggling the way we are. And when we do something that’s Latino, it doesn’t do as well. “One Day at a Time” (a Netflix sitcom begun in 2017) was hilarious. It was marvelous. It was no accident because it had Norman Lear who chose the writers. And we lasted three and a half seasons. You wonder: Why didn’t that happen?
AP: Many would attribute it to the entrenched biases in Hollywood.
MORENO: It’s one of the very few things about my career that really makes me sad. A lot of the reviews for this documentary were fabulous. A number of the critics said something to the effect of: It’s sad to think that this woman might have had a real career in films had she not had this career when she had it. And I think that’s true. I think it’s very, very true. I want to say I’ve been robbed. But you know, what good does that do?
AP: After “West Side Story,” you’ve said you were offered only similar, stereotypical roles for years.
MORENO: Those were brutal. Brutal! When I got the Oscar and the Golden Globe, I thought: “OK, finally.” And that’s not what happened at all. In fact, it was the opposite. I was offered more Anita-type roles when I was offered something, which was not that frequent. I made a decision not to accept any more of those kinds of roles. It was a lot of coffee pourers, housewives and stuff. I said I’m not going to do them anymore. Ha-ha, I showed them. I didn’t make a movie for seven years. I mean, how stubborn can you get?
AP: You recently revisited “West Side Story” with Spielberg. How was that?
MORENO: It was just grand. I’ve been a fan of Steven’s work for years. When he called, he offered me a part in “West Side Story.” I nearly peed my pants because this is Steven Spielberg, one of my idols. I said to him that I would love to do a cameo, but I said, “You don’t really want me to do that, do you?” And he said, “Oh, no, no. It’s a part. It’s a real part. Tony Kushner wrote it for you.” First of all, Tony Kushner’s writing the script? What! I was thrilled. I was excited the way a child would be excited. Tony kept adding to the part. It’s a wonderful part. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
AP: I don’t imagine you do, but do you have any regrets?
MORENO: If I can’t have all the movies I always wanted to be in — which are all the Meryl Streep movies, I wanted to be her — but if I can’t do that, I’ve done pretty well, considering. And I think I’ve left an important legacy in a very, very meaningful sense and that is: That I have never gave up. I have never given up. I just cling and hang on to what is important to me. A great deal of that has to do with self-respect and earning respect.
AP: I know it’s early, but have you picked out a theme for your 90th birthday in December?
MORENO: I think it’s going to be Puerto Rico. (Laughs.) It means the food. It means people have to dress a certain way. I’m probably going to say Puerto Rico in the ’30s. I’ll make them wear Panama hats.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP.