She has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. But Rita Moreno never thought her life or career was documentary-worthy.
When producer Brent Miller approached her about making “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (in theaters Friday), “I said, ‘My life isn’t all that interesting,’ ” recalls the screen icon, who moved from Puerto Rico to New York when she was just 5. “He talked about the importance of showing the audience at large what goes on in the life of someone who comes from another country. It’s a very up-close and personal look at the travails and joys of being who I am.”
The documentary details Moreno’s yearslong struggle in Hollywood being typecast in “ethnic” or sexualized roles before starring in 1961’s “West Side Story,” winning the best supporting actress Oscar for her captivating performance as Anita. She also speaks about her emotionally abusive relationship with Marlon Brando, which drove her to attempt suicide after a botched abortion, and her marriage to late husband Leonard Gordon, whom she describes as a “controller” in the film.
‘Right now, I’m terrific’: Rita Moreno opens up about her controlling marriage, trailblazing career in new doc
Moreno, 89, stirred controversy earlier this week after defending Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Latinx-led “In the Heights” movie has drawn criticism for sidelining Afro-Latino talent. USA TODAY spoke to the actress last month about Brando, her career and more.
Q: You’ve said your husband was a wonderful person and it was hard for you to talk about him in this film. Why was it important for you to be so candid about your relationship?
Rita Moreno: If I hadn’t talked about that, you wouldn’t get half of who I am. You wouldn’t understand where I come from because the first thing people ask is, “Why didn’t you get separated or divorced?” I come from a different time, you don’t just leave. I kept thinking of our daughter (Fernanda Luisa Gordon) because she was extremely close to him. And I couldn’t, in good conscience, put her through that. At the same time, it had a great deal to do with the idea that I never thought I was capable of looking after myself. It has so much to do with being Latina and being brought up in a very specific way: “Always be nice to men because they’re the ones who can either hurt you or help you.” That was ingrained in me, so it was difficult to leave that relationship on many levels.
Q: Because of the #MeToo movement and more open discussions about mental health, there’s a greater awareness around emotional abuse. At what point were you able to recognize your relationship with Marlon Brando as such?
Moreno: I was in therapy at the time we were going together. We went together for almost eight years, which is a long time of getting beaten (up) emotionally. But there was something there I needed and I realized that I was still looking for Daddy. My mom had four marriages and I had stepfathersall over the place and that was something that was never resolved in my life. So I always was looking for a person who would accept me on every single level. Needless to say, I always managed to find a man who was not capable of doing that.
(Brando) actually is the fellow who said to me, “You need therapy,” which is hilarious, given that he was such a lunatic. One lunatic telling the other. (Laughs.) But he was absolutely right.
There was an enormous sexual attraction between the two of us. That part of it, I don’t regret at all. It was quite amazing. I experienced things, sensually speaking, that I never did again. I’m sorry about this relationship and I do regret it, but parts of me are very glad that it happened because it was an extraordinary experience and he was an extraordinary man. But he was really just fodder for a neurotic woman like myself at that time.
Q: Rewatching you in “West Side Story” recently, I couldn’t help but think, “How was she not the biggest star in Hollywood after this movie?”
Moreno: I’m glad you brought that up. It’s very hard for me to think about that without feeling really, really sad because it’s been a struggle. Even now it’s a struggle. It’s not like people are knocking my door down. There’s a lot of respect, obviously. I’ve gotten any number of awards, which I certainly appreciate and love, but that still doesn’t replace getting the work. It just doesn’t. And maybe, in a way, that’s the reason I received so many of these things: Maybe somewhere in the minds of these people who give accolades, they think, “What a shame. Not enough happened for this woman.” And if I think about that too long, I get really sad, so I try not to. I mean, I’m 89.
Q: What motivated you to keep at it? Because I’m sure a lot of other actors might’ve thrown in the towel.
Moreno: Oh, never, never, never. I really love what I do. I love acting. I’m a real fan of actors. When we come to the Oscars and I get to vote for performances, it’s a great part of my year. I mean, Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman,” who I thought was just staggeringly wonderful. I sit back and say, “How did she do that?” I’m filled with wonder at great performances, so it’s certainly one reason I would never, never throw in the towel. It’s just too much fun when you actually get to do it. It’s a challenge and it’s a fascinating business, but it’s a cruel one.
Obviously, it’s improved immensely, but it still isn’t where it should be. The Hispanic population of actors still has to struggle, still has to hustle like crazy. Where is our “Moonlight?” Why aren’t we at least halfway where the Black acting community is? It’s a mystery to me, and it’s not one that’s going to be solved in my lifetime.