Rita Moreno’s movie career has lasted approximately forever.
She was 18 when her first film, the soon-forgotten “So Young, So Bad,” opened. And her newest one?
That’s Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” on Dec. 10. “On Dec. 11, I’ll be 90 …. The planets are aligned,” she told the Television Critics Association.
That’s a 72-year span, highlighted in a documentary at 9 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 5) on PBS. It’s a story in which her role in the original, 1961 “West Side Story” movie (shown here) takes a key spot.
After a dozen years of mostly small, stereotyped roles, Moreno had suddenly soared. She played Anita, won the Academy Award for best supporting actor and vowed to stick to good roles.
And then? “I could not get a (movie) job,” she said. “The very few that were offered to me were lesser gang movies and some parts as a coffee-pourer for a Hispanic family.”
Moreno had been making a couple other movies at that time, but didn’t get another for seven years. She had some TV guest roles, a Broadway show and some strong feelings about women in media.
“They have been mistreated for so long,” she said. “Particularly women of color and women from other countries – but all women. It’s so important to understand that we really do have value.”
Even her triumph was a close call. Moreno says she almost left “West Side Story” before it started.
The original version of “America,” she said, had Anita sing: “Puerto Rico, you ugly island/island of tropic diseases.” She fretted, fumed, thought about giving up the role.
And then? “One or two days later, I got the new lyrics … and it’s ‘Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.” That was milder – but far from her real feelings about the island.
“Puerto Rico is a place that I connect only with happiness and contentment and fun and sweetness and love …. It is a paradise,” she said. “The weather is gorgeous; the people are sweet.”
It was where she spent her first five years. Then she moved with her mother to Long Island, where she began Spanish–dance lessons. At 11, she did voice work, dubbing movies into Spanish … at 13, she was on Broadway … as a teen-ager, she signed a movie-studio contract.
The roles were small and stereotyped, she said, and she started asking herself questions. “Why do I always have to speak with an accent? Why do I always have to have dark, dark makeup? …. Why am letting these people tell me who I am?”
There were exceptions, including when Gene Kelly, “an enlightened man,” chose her for a “Singin’ in the Rain” role. It was “a non-Latina, non-ethnic part …. I thought my career was just really starting.”
It wasn’t. There were some more stereotyped roles, then “West Side Story,” then a lull. She had a tumultuous romance with Marlon Brando, who shared her passion for civil rights, but maintained a male-dominated relationship.
Eventually, Moreno would reach all fields, particularly TV. She had six years on PBS’ “The Electric Company,” six on HBO’s “Oz” (as a nun helping inmates), three on the “One Day at a Time” reboot.
She became an EGOT – winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Apparently, only 16 people have won all four in competitive categories … and only two (Moreno and Helen Hayes) have done it strictly with individual acting awards.
Moreno keeps getting lifetime awards – from the Screen Actors Guild, the Television Critics Association, the Kennedy Center and more. There’s a lot of life to squeeze into one documentary.
“The first cut was almost two hours,” said director Mariem Perez Riera. She kept trimming, reluctantly. “It’s a great 90 minutes.”
The result is “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.” And nearing 90, Moreno is still zealously going for it.