The life and career of the dynamic Rita Moreno is given a proud upward spin in Mariem Pérez Riera‘s Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. It streamed last Friday (1.29) at the Sundance Film Festival, and the tone of it is very “go, Rita… we love and cherish you”, etc. Which is great — it’s what every positive-minded doc about a long-haul, never-say-die actress should be like.
But it also says “poor Rita, poor girl…the sexist, male-dominated entertainment world of the ’50s treated you like an exotic piece of meat…it failed to foresee the advent of Women’s Liberation of the late ’60s and the #MeToo movement of 2017 and beyond…it refused to see beyond the borders of the ’50s and failed to honor you for the spunky, spiritual being that you are now and always have been, and so it failed you. And we’re sorry for that but at least you’re still kicking it at age 89. And we love you for that.”
I’m basically saying that as buoyant and impassioned as Riera’s doc is, it plays the victim card over and over. It ignores the way things were when Moreno was coming up in the ’50s, and it tips in the direction of instructional 21st Century progressive feminism. It’s totally infused with “presentism” — judging the past by present-day standards.
It’s not about how Moreno’s life unfolded on a moment-to-moment basis when she was coming up and making her name and building her career, but about how badly she was treated and what assholes the various men were. Which they WERE, of course, but the ’50s were not a time of enlightenment as far as recognizing the full value of women in any realm was concerned. Moreno had a tough time because of that, but she came through anyway and look at her today…unbowed, feisty, still plugging.
Yes, the film industry was sexist, exploitive, insensitive…unable or unwilling to see Moreno as a unique Latina with her own identity amd contours. Yes, it was a bad place in many respects, but then again she was close to the top of the industry in the ‘50s. How many dozens or hundreds of other Latina actress dancers were hungry to be cast in the roles that she landed? How many others were as talented? Or making as much money? (There was a reason that she got the Anita role in West Side Story rather than Chita Rivera, who played thee spitfire character on Broadway). How many Puerto Rican-born actresses were hanging out with Marlon Brando in the ’50s and early ’60s and running in that heavy company? Or attending the 1963 Civil Rights March? And having a side affair with Elvis Presley and rubbing shoulders with almost everyone who mattered back them?
Yes, she really got going as a stage and character actress in the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond. Yes, she was on The Electric Company and Sesame Street and Oz. Yes, she’s costarring in the Norman Lear reboot of One Day At A Time, etc.
It’s a bit curious, by the way, that Riera decided to ignore Moreno’s big scene with Jack Nicholson at the end of Mike Nichols‘ Carnal Knowledge (’71). It’s one of her hallmark moments of that era, and yet Riera dismisses it because…you tell me. She also ignores Moreno’s Elvis Presley affair, which was basically about making Brando jealous. (And she succeeded in doing that.)
The narrative is only about how cruel and insensitive and oppressive the industry was to Moreno. Which it WAS, of course. But it also afforded her fame, fortune, access, opportunity….all kinds of drama and excitement and intrigues. Obviously hard and demeaning and ungracious, but also door-opening. The doc only tells you how oppressive things were and what pigs the men were. Or what control freaks they were. Which they WERE, of course, but when wasn’t life hard or challenging for saucy actresses, especially in the bad old days? What people haven’t been disappointing in this or that way?
The doc also airs the now-common lament about how unfairly dismissive Sondheim’s West Side Story lyrics were in their allusions to Puerto Rico. Half of West Side Story is about a community of young, Manhattan-residing Puerto Ricans. They all decided to leave Puerto Rico for what they regarded as a compelling reason. I’m presuming they saw an economic advantage in living in Manhattan, which means there were certain disadvantages to living in their Caribbean homeland. But the p.c. thing today is “what disadvantages?”
For several years following her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for West Side Story, Moreno didn’t receive an offer for a decent movie role. All she was offered was hot-Latina-gang crap, and so she worked on stage. But remember her acceptance speech at the 1962 Oscars? “I can’t believe it!” and that was all. Perhaps if she had prepared a touching heartfelt speech about her life and what a great role Anita was and how amazing the industry is and how much she loves acting and doing her best…if she had prepared something emotional and sold it when she won…maybe she might have been offered better parts. Who knows?