By Kristin Reiber Harris
Ageism is alive and well in American and Hollywood, that’s not really a surprise. Past NYWIFT Muse Honoree Rita Moreno, who just turned 90, is an incredible inspiration in her tenacity and grace as she has pursued her career on stage and screen for almost 70 years.
Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It, directed by Marieum Pérez Riera, recently premiered and is available on Netflix and PBS. I watched this documentary the weekend I was celebrating my 75th birthday. I am lucky to be in good health and feel very energetic. I was humble to watch this film about vivacious Rita Moreno who was 87 when the documentary was filmed. She is clearly dancing circles around me. She continues working today. She has been well recognized for her excellence during her career, winning all of the major awards for entertainers; Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, the coveted EGOT. Moreno was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
She inspires by her energetic presence as she faces 90 but also by the challenges she overcame. She thrived despite them. Born in Puerto Rico in the early 30’s, she came to the United States when she was five. She and her mother arrived in NYC during the depression to a very segregated city that tried to teach Rita that she had no value. Rita acknowledged that these challenges scarred her permanently, despite her very successful career.
Smitten as a young child with the world of entertainment she was taking dancing lessons soon after arriving in New York City. Rita said she decided she wanted to be an entertainer as a young child when she saw her first movie. Her mother was very supportive and as a seamstress helped her dress the part. She soon began dancing professionally and at 16 was the sole breadwinner for her family. When Rita and her mother went to Hollywood to further her career, she looked as much like her role model Elizabeth Taylor as she could. MGM gave her a seven year contract. At MGM she was primarily portraying ethnic women from Indigenous to Hispanic. That type casting would follow her for years.
Her challenges were many but as she says, her middle name is perseverance. Even with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in West Side Story, she could not find work she felt acknowledged her accomplishments. A tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brandon resulted in an attempted suicide. Today Rita emphasizes the value of therapy and examining herself and finding her value.
Learning the details of the obstacles she overcame is only part of the story. When you see her and hear her talk about her life, you realize how grounded she is and how she has used her life experience to become a more fully realized person and role model for others. She has a great sense of humor and is gracious and elegant. Rita, in her dogged determination to pursue her art has found peace and calm she exudes while being a movie star in every sense of the word.
NYWIFT screened Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It in November 2021, followed by an exclusive talkback with Rita Moreno and director Marieum Pérez Riera. Watch the full conversation below.
Learn more about Rita’s career on the PBS American Masters website.
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