(Photo by ©AMPAS / Courtesy Everett Collection (NCDACAD EC186))
To say the multi-talented star Rita Moreno is a legend is almost not enough. It doesn’t describe the trailblazing path she’s carved out for herself in the entertainment industry against all odds. It doesn’t describe the racism and sexism she faced throughout her career, the struggles she dealt with when casting directors would only slot her into pan-ethnic supporting roles, or the bittersweet victory of winning an Oscar for her performance in West Side Story and the fallow period that followed when she was only offered stereotypical parts. The term legend doesn’t quite encompass her award-winning theatrical or television work, her decades-long dedication to activism, or her influence on generations of fans and actors alike. A word can’t quite capture it, true, but a new film released this week and featuring the woman herself manages to do her justice: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.
The documentary traces Moreno’s life story back to her childhood in Puerto Rico, which was interrupted by her mother’s move to a cold island very different from the one she was used to: Manhattan. Moreno’s love of performing led her to pursue acting, and after landing a contract at MGM Studios, she was off to Hollywood. Unfortunately, it was not all red carpets and plum acting jobs. She ran into men who tried to control her, men who looked down on her because she was Puerto Rican, at least one man she says assaulted her, and another, Marlon Brando, who she says almost drove her to suicide. Yet, despite the personal and professional hardships, she persevered, making it to a point in her life where she can savor her accomplishments, reminisce about the past, and share some hard-earned knowledge and life advice.
Ahead of the documentary’s release on Friday and months before her appearance in Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of West Side Story, Moreno spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about some of her favorite movies. She said it was difficult for her to rank her favorites – so it’s more a selection of old and recent titles she’s enjoyed through the years, from Citizen Kane to Promising Young Woman.
Citizen Kane (1941)
The first movie that comes to mind to me always is Citizen Kane, for many reasons. The camera work was extraordinary in it and it was way ahead of its time, I thought. I’m going to ask you a question about it: Who overheard the word “Rosebud” just before Kane dies? They forgot to shoot it. And I know this because Robert Wise was the editor and he directed West Side Story. And he told me that. He said, “No, no, no. Nope. Nope. Nobody was in there when he said Rosebud.” Isn’t that a great movie story? I saw it on a rerun obviously in one of the art theaters in New York City. So that must have been in the, I guess, in the 1950s. It’s a great movie.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I adore E.T. I can never get enough of E.T. It has all of the elements. Number one, it has superb child actors, which can really only happen because of Steven Spielberg. He is just great with children because he’s like a child himself. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. So I can never not love E.T. for all of those reasons. The children are just enchanting, and of course the voice that they found for E.T. [Moreno imitates the “E.T. phone home” line.]
So at first, Steven didn’t quite accept it [when I told him I loved the film]. I said, “No, no, no, no, no. You don’t understand. I’m not kissing your behind. I love this movie. It has all of the elements of a wonderful movie that you don’t forget because it’s filled with so much love.” And you don’t get that too often in films. Isn’t that interesting? You get lots of drama. You don’t get love that way.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
I was hoping that Carey Mulligan would win [Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards]. No offense to the lady who won, because she’s just fabulous, and she certainly earned it. It’s not that. But Carey Mulligan did, too. She’s such a controlled actress. She can really hang on and there’s something about somebody who’s playing a bad guy or girl who doesn’t give it all out. That’s very impressive. That’s hard to do, because I remember one of the scenes, one of the first guys, when he says, “You know what happened? Can I apologize?” Or something like that, and she says, “No.” It’s not, “No, you can.” It’s, “No.” She’s marvelous. I think she’s a fabulous actress, but there’s lots of those.
I love The French Lieutenant’s Woman. What a great movie. She [Meryl Streep] looked exquisite in it, the photography was amazing, and there was nothing wrong with that movie at all. It was a fabulous movie and so different and so unusual. I even love the title for its originality. Great movie.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
I love to show them [her grandchildren] my movie Singin’ in the Rain. I’ve always looked younger for my age. I just have. And then at the point I was about, I don’t know, 20-something, and I looked like I was 12. And they kept looking at me and looking at the movie and looking at me, and they were saying, “Is that you?” And I said, “Excuse me: Yes!” And one of them actually said, “Are you sure?” Anyway, that’s one of my favorite movies by the way – of all the movies and the genres, I think Singin’ in the Rain is just one of the great movie musicals. “Dignity, always dignity.” And when he’s in a little airplane as a stuntman, goes crashing through a barn, I swear to God, I thought I would pee.
Monica Castillo for Rotten Tomatoes: Since you mentioned Singin’ in the Rain as one of your favorite movies, do you have a favorite memory from the lot?
Rita Moreno: I was under contract to MGM, young, very young. I think I was 18, and I was told that I might be doing it, but Gene Kelly had to talk to me first. He met me in the makeup department, and the first thing he said was – he was kind of a bit off-putting – and he said, “Zelda Zanders is this and that and that and this.” And he said, “You need to cut your hair.” And I said, “No.” He literally said, “Excuse me?” I said, “No, I won’t cut my hair.” “Why?” I said, “Well, we just don’t in my family. We don’t cut our hair.” And he literally said, “Nobody’s ever said that to me before.” I really got nervous. I said [to myself], “You and your big mouth, you thought you were showing off how independent you are” – which I wasn’t.
And he said, “Well, we’ll see. We’ll talk to you later.” I thought, “S–t, I really did it.” But he did, and I got that funny red-haired wig. Actually the wig he wanted to put on me, I mean, the ‘do he wanted to do on me was the one that eventually Cyd Charisse did, which was the little bangs and the little chopped-up one, which would have probably looked adorable. But there I was.
There’s so many things because I was on that set almost every day, watching, learning, observing. I literally lived on those sets in Singin’ in the Rain. I saw him [Kelly] do that Singin’ in the Rain number with a fever. I saw Donald O’Connor do “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which is an amazing number. What’s interesting about that, it’s a little tiny bit of movie lore, he had to shoot it all over again after he did it because something was wrong with the camera. I don’t remember what it was. And he killed himself on that. And I remember he got a carpet rub on his arm. Those are the things you’re going to remember forever. Judy Garland said somewhere, “Being at MGM was just a dream come true for a young girl,” especially a little Puerto Rican girl.
(Photo by Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)
Rotten Tomatoes: That’s a chapter of your life that’s featured heavily in the documentary. I’d like to hear more about what your experience was like moving from Puerto Rico to New York City to Hollywood.
Moreno: It was unbelievable because MGM was the studio that I always wanted to be with, assuming I had a choice, which is hilarious. But when an MGM talent scout approached my mom after seeing me perform at a dance school recital – because talent scouts really did do things like that – he came backstage and he handed her a business card and said, “It can’t happen now, but I think Rosita would be a wonderful candidate for MGM studios.” I just about passed out. Like six months later, he called my mom, and he would call her now and then just say, “I haven’t forgotten.”
One time he called her, and we had just gotten a phone. I keep remembering details like that because phones were expensive. He said, “Louis B. Mayer is coming to town and I would like him to meet Rosita. And this is the day and this is where you go,” and all that. I about died. We literally went shopping, and I got a cincher because I wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor, [who] was my role model. I didn’t have any role models that made sense because nobody like me had them then.
What’s interesting is that when we got to the Waldorf Astoria, first of all, my mother goes to the desk and she says, “We are going to meet Louis B. Major – how do we find Louis B. Major?” And the girl said, “Who?” They said, “Go to the special elevator and press P for penthouse.” I went in, met him, and the first thing he said – if not the first, one of the first – “Why she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” And before the meeting was over, he was like, “How would you like a contract with MGM, young lady?” So, everything that’s interesting and important in my professional life has been fortuitous. You know how we all say we struggle? My struggles have been monumental, but somehow when big things happen, they usually happen like that. Go figure.
Rotten Tomatoes: In the documentary, you don’t just revisit these memories. You return to them and offer life lessons you picked up from these experiences. Was that intentional?
Moreno: Well, it does come out, but it’s also intentional in the sense that I made a promise to myself that if I was going to do this documentary, I was going to be as truthful as I could possibly be. I’ve seen other documentaries, especially with actors, and I always see a lot of little shifting and stuff, and I always know when they’re doing that. I thought, I’m not going to do that, and I didn’t. It was a promise that was hard to keep sometimes because I was asked some tough questions, and I mean, you can almost see it sometimes when I just hesitate: “Dare I answer this?”I thought: “You have to. You made a promise to the most important person in the world: you.”
(Photo by Courtesy of MGM Media Licensing)
And yes, to answer your question in a light manner, I think it’s very important to point out the lessons and what I’ve learned because I’ve learned a lot. I was a very, very ignorant young woman. I knew almost nothing. Like in this scene where I talk about my agent sexually abusing me. I didn’t even know the word “rape.” I mean, I was really very innocent. What I said to myself was, “He attacked me.” I didn’t know words like that. I was truly, truly a very pure young woman, and going to Hollywood, being that kind of young woman, was really shocking and hard on me. When I talk about that cocktail party, it’s brutal. I almost want to say it’s not fair, but what is? I think one of the lessons of the documentary with respect to women is you just have to get tough without becoming a tough, hard person. That is not an easy task. You have to learn to bounce with the horrors and the insults to your humanity and to your femininity and yet not get bitter. That is really difficult.
I think it’s what psychotherapy really brought to my life. I will always talk about it in the most positive way because it helped me immensely. I really grew up with no sense of self. I really despised myself. I did not like myself, but that’s because I learned very early on that I was a “spic.” That’s what I learned as a very young girl. And what’s a spic? They’re nothing. They don’t mean anything. They don’t have value. It takes a very, very long time to understand that, to find where you are worthy. I think only unless you were immensely lucky, I think the only way to find that when you’ve lost it or never had it, is to be in psychotherapy.
Rotten Tomatoes: One of the things that the documentary also touches on, and I feel like you could talk so much more about, is your history and activism because you got into activism fairly early on in your career.
Moreno: I had a roommate here in California when I was in my late teens, I guess 19, 20, who was very political, a girl named Phyllis. She was the one who really introduced me to that world, to the world of caring for others and doing for others. I think actually she was a real lefty. I’m guessing now because I didn’t use those words then, but she made me understand that it isn’t enough to help yourself, but that you really, really have an obligation, if you’re a human being, to help others in any way that you can. And that really turned me around. I thought she was an extraordinary one and still do.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is in theaters Friday June 18, 2022.
Thumbnail: Photo: ©AMPAS / Courtesy Everett Collection (NCDACAD EC186), © Universal Pictures, © United Arists, © Focus Features