Rita Moreno’s most indelible display screen second, which had her and a “West Aspect Story” ensemble sizing up the professionals and cons of their adopted U.S. homeland, stays an eternally intelligent musical argument over whether or not “America” is a dream or nightmare for immigrants, settling in at a 50/50 cut up. The stability is skewed extra alongside the traces of 80/20, in favor of dream, for the star herself in “Rita Moreno: Simply a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” Premiering at Sundance, the documentary from the theatrical wing of “American Masters” cheerfully jumps from one heartening profession reinvention to the subsequent, with sobering lulls to ponder what an much more prolific filmography she may need had with out profligate racism and sexism standing in her path.
The checklist of government producers contains longtime pal and partner-in-social-consciousness Norman Lear, in addition to the person who’s adopted in Moreno’s footsteps because the main American exemplar of Puerto Rican delight, Lin-Manuel Miranda. That doesn’t augur nicely for a warts-and-all method. however the repeated explosions of uplift in director Mariem Pérez Riera’s doc really feel fairly well-earned. It’s exhausting to consider many display screen sirens nonetheless round from the studio system’s final golden age who haven’t solely lived to inform the story, at 89 (as of the movie’s premiere), however are nonetheless doing acclaimed work and are activist sufficient to have “position mannequin” completely etched into their résumés.
The setup has Moreno planning her personal festive birthday celebration, as is seemingly her wont, with a jaunty jazz rating that means we’re about to see a feature-length enshrinement of a Grande Olde Dame. The star appears to be like impossibly glamorous for her principal interview. Quickly sufficient, we do see footage of Moreno earlier than she cleans up so good, as she arrives on the “One Day at a Time” set on the Sony lot — echoing her early days as an MGM starlet — to do her personal make-up.
In or out of glam mode, although, it’s clear that Moreno is nearly at all times “on,” and so far as we will see, that’s a good factor. “I could also be petite, however I’m huge,” she says late within the movie, speaking about her lengthy marriage to a husband who wished she would tamp down her outsize character. Her thoughtfulness however, Moreno makes no bones about it: She lives to be vivaciously entertaining, on- and off-screen.
There’s not a lot proof right here that Moreno has a darkish aspect, which makes it particularly bracing when she does immediately change out of attraction mode to frankly and unflinchingly handle the extra sinister sides of Hollywood she encountered on her approach up as “a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” She describes early would-be mentor Harry Cohn as “a distinctly vulgar and crude man” who thought “ I’d like to f— you” was a workable come-on. Years later, when she’d made a title for herself, Moreno’s agent raped her, she says, and “I nonetheless let him be my agent, as a result of he was the one one which was serving to me in my so-called profession.”
These harrowing however not atypical moments of misogyny give approach to some distinctive issues Moreno confronted as the face of Latinas on the massive display screen for fairly a while. She was put into a succession of “island woman” roles, typically sporting “make-up the colour of mud,” even after she bought a alternative non-“ethnic” position in “Singin’ within the Rain.” For her career-making flip in “West Aspect Story,” she appeared in an embarrassing brown-face that mars one of many in any other case nice musicals of all time.
However after a mysterious profession drought after profitable the supporting actress Oscar for that efficiency, Moreno got here again and conquered the EGOT mountain with tasks as disparate as evening and day — her performances in Broadway’s (and the flicks’) bathhouse-set “The Ritz,” and in TV’s youngsters’ sequence “The Electrical Firm.” These twin comebacks look like they’ve established her breadth as soon as and for all, until the doc will get to her run because the mousy-looking however stoically fierce nun-shrink in “Oz,” the place Moreno endlessly proved that she may get small, too.
You retain wishing the clips have been longer; who wouldn’t need an hour and a half simply of “Electrical Firm” scenes with Moreno taking part in towards Morgan Freeman (who exhibits up as one of many speaking heads right here)? Some personal-life components appear much more breezed over: Within the early narrative, there’s little follow-up on the provocative query of whether or not she was traumatized when she and her mom left the remainder of the household behind to come to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. An early ‘60s suicide try comes up and mainly goes unexplored. Her 7-or-8-year relationship with Marlon Brando feels prefer it deserves its personal film, though possibly the combat scene from their co-starring stint in “The Night time of the Following Day” says practically sufficient.
However the delight that infuses the film — the admiration that comes from her costars, and the admiration of her Latinx acolytes and mentees, in addition to her personal self-belief — comes at simply the proper size. Not many potential topics for docs of this kind actually justify being put in a character arc that includes so many micro-rises and falls earlier than such an prolonged and swish plateau. Coming away from “Simply a Girl,” it’s not possible not to be satisfied that Moreno is the uncommon display screen legend who discovered a approach to stick the Hollywood touchdown.