Her longevity is noteworthy enough. Maybe it’s genetic, or athletic—a dancer’s reward for the toll that dancing takes on the body. But the most remarkable thing about Rita Moreno is how much she has done and continues to do with the gift of a long life that she examines, with irrepressible verve, in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
This delightful and useful documentary by Mariem Pérez Riera catches its subject at a piquant point in her career. At age 89, a number that’s almost impossible to reconcile with her bright spirit and vivid presence, she has recently finished a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s new screen version of the Broadway musical “West Side Story.” That brings her full circle from Robert Wise’s 1961 screen version, in which she played Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks. Her performance won her a supporting-actress Oscar and turned her career around, though ever so slowly. Puerto Rican by birth, and the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award, she gave an acceptance speech that may have been the shortest in Oscar history: “I don’t believe it!”
Her astonishment was heartfelt. Some of the most fascinating—and dismaying—parts of Ms. Riera’s film are devoted to the characters Ms. Moreno portrayed long before any turnaround was conceivable, let alone possible. They were the stereotyped roles that non-Anglo performers—actresses in particular—were ritually consigned to. She played sultry dark-skinned girls from India (“in makeup the color of mud”), seductive island girls from Polynesia, hot-blooded Hispanic pepper pots, and all of them in what she terms—and mimics hilariously—a universal ethnic accent. One exception suggests how dispiriting the rule must have been. She had a smallish role in the 1952 classic “Singin’ In the Rain,” and loved doing it—not because her character, Zelda Zanders, is right there in the opening sequence, arriving at a Hollywood premiere on the arm of some old rich guy, but because she was playing a flapper, a showgirl. Zelda wasn’t ethnic at all.
If there’s an award for straight-to-the-camera performance, Ms. Moreno’s appearance here should win it by acclamation. Never mind that she’s entirely at ease with herself and looks wonderful (after, as she says blithely, “putting on the famous Moreno face we all know and love.”) It’s her no-nonsense affect, her steady-state warmth that gives the impression of her sitting there talking through the camera and past the lights, directly to us. And her calm, wry humor is all the more striking because some of the things she has to say are appalling (her description of her long, tumultuous and ultimately shattering relationship with Marlon Brando, about whom she manages to toss off a great joke) or downright horrifying (the sexual predators she encountered in high and not-so-high places, and could not always fend off).
The film takes note—how could it not?—of Ms. Moreno’s elite EGOT status: She’s one of a small cohort of entertainers who have won an Emmy (she has two of them), a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. But Ms. Riera’s documentary doesn’t confine itself to her subject’s work in show business. Ms. Moreno has long been an activist on behalf of political causes: for representation before the word became a byword and decades before Mr. Spielberg cast his “West Side Story” with ethnically appropriate actors (though she briefly found herself on the unpopular side of a controversy over skin color in the new film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights”); for civil rights, reproductive rights and women’s rights defined broadly. (The film does itself a disservice with the gratuitous inclusion of scenes in which Ms. Moreno is watching Christine Blasey Ford’s televised Senate testimony alleging sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh.)