The Puerto Rican-born star of the first West Side Story movie reflects on her life, career and traumas in this warm documentary salute
This televisual but still touching documentary tribute to actor Rita Moreno, who turns 90 this month, is released in the UK as a warm-up act to Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story coming out next month. Moreno is probably most famous for playing Anita in the 1961 film version of the musical, in a zesty, broad performance in which she whips the voluminous folds of her lilac party dress while singing America. It was a turn that earned her the best supporting actress Oscar, and she will be in Spielberg’s new version, too, but Rita-as-Anita in the lilac dress will probably remain the image that most often comes to mind when her name is mentioned.
Director Mariem Pérez Riera celebrates a career that had a number of interesting twists and turns even if she never rose very high in the film firmament after her big moment. Instead, Moreno broadened out and performed on stage and on television: she appeared in the 70s opposite Morgan Freeman in the kids’ show The Electric Company and, from the late 90s to early 00s, played a nun in the prison drama Oz. Most recently, she found acclaim in the 2017 reboot featuring a Cuban-American family of the 70s sitcom One Day at a Time.
An interview with Moreno, still sexy as hell and sharp as a stiletto, anchors the story as she recalls her childhood in Puerto Rico and New York. Then came a long slog as an all-purpose, any-ethnicity-that’s-needed ingenue (although the accent was the same each time) after she landed a contract with MGM because she looked like, in the words of Louis B Mayer, “a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor”. She coolly recounts being raped by her agent and having a tempestuous seven-year relationship with Marlon Brando that led to a botched, illegal abortion and eventually a suicide attempt once they split up. These traumas helped fuel a hunger for justice and support for leftwing political causes, especially women’s rights.
An assortment of friends, family and fans, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eva Longoria in the latter category, raise virtual champagne glasses to salute the lady, and it’s enough to leave the audience feeling warm and fuzzy. Overall, she emerges just as vampish, feisty and fun as you’d expect, and as a gracious giver of speeches at ceremonies where she collects endless lifetime achievement awards, her biggest side-hustle next to acting.
• Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is on digital platforms from 6 December.