Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, debuts on PBS Oct. 5. Part of the American Masters franchise, the documentary details the film, television, stage and singing career of Moreno.
“If I was going to do this project, it was important for me to make a promise that I would be as honest and truthful as possible,” said Moreno, 89, during a TCA session. “And that never changed, that objective. I think it is probably one of the reasons, if not the reason, that this documentary has gotten such praise--because there's no bullpoop.”
Mariem Perez Riera directed the film. Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda are executive producers, along with Michael Kantor, exec producer of American Masters, Regina K. Scully and Lyn Davis Lear.
“Over a career spanning more than 70 years, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and award-winning actor,” said PBS. “This documentary explores the star’s rich, decades-long career using vérité footage of Moreno today, archival footage of her roles and appearances, reenactments of her childhood, animation and interviews with Moreno, those close to her and performers she influenced.”
Gloria Estafan, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg and Eva Longoria are among those sharing their thoughts on the star. Moreno called it “a documentary about the times now, about the times then,” and “a lesson in history.”
Perez Riera sought to make a film about an icon, but to also show the challenges Moreno was up against as a woman, and a woman of color. “The idea was to show what it means to be a woman period, but what it means to be a woman at that time too,” she said.
Born in Puerto Rico and growing up in New York, Moreno found work in the arts early on. Her films include Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I and West Side Story, and her TV work includes The Electric Company, Oz and the reboot of One Day at a Time. She’s also in the Stephen Spielberg redo of West Side Story, out in December.
She mentioned wrestling over the lyrics in the original West Side Story that her Anita character was to sing, which bashed Puerto Rico. She was torn between sticking to the script or speaking out, until the lyrics were changed. “You can’t imagine what a relief that was,” said Moreno, who described Puerto Rico as “a paradise.”
Moreno spoke of how things have changed for women in Hollywood during her time in the performance arts. She also mentioned a dark time, after West Side Story, when she could not find work. “Why do I always have to speak with an accent?” she said of parts she was offered early on. “Why do I always have dark, dark, dark makeup? I had no mentors. I had nobody to guide me.”
Kantor called Moreno “a pathfinder and groundbreaker” who battled the issues brought up amidst the #MeToo movement many decades before the movement took root.
Perez Riera spoke of the challenge in cutting the film down to 90 minutes, after the initial three-hour cut. “I don’t think we left anything out that was important,” she said. “I think it’s a great 90 minutes.”
Moreno mentioned that Spielberg’s West Side Story comes out a day before her 90th birthday in December. “You are in for one of the great experiences of all time,” she said. “This is a great story. It’s a marvelous movie.”
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.
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