Review: ‘West Side Story’ (2021), starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno

December 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“West Side Story” (2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957 in New York City, the musical drama remake “West Side Story” features a cast of white and Latino people representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A young Puerto Rican woman and a young Polish American man fall in love with each other, despite having people close to them who are in rival, warring gangs that are opposed to this romance.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of the original “West Side Story” movie musical, this 2021 version of “West Side Story” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Steven Spielberg and movie adaptations of Broadway musicals.

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

The 2021 remake of “West Side Story” is exactly the glossy spectacle that you might expect from director Steven Spielberg. The movie is a bonafide crowd-pleasing epic that makes some interesting changes from the 1961’s “West Side Story” movie, a classic that was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In the 2021 version of “West Side Story,” some of these changes work better than other revisions to the original movie. The original “West Side Story” movie was based on a Tony-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957. The Broadway musical was written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay to the 1961 “West Side Story,” while Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay to the 2021 “West Side Story.”

The original “West Side Story” movie starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as four young people in New York City who are caught in the middle of gang warfare, ethnic bigotry and risky romance. Moreno and Chakiris won Oscars for their supporting roles in the movie, which won a total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. (Moreno’s Oscar victory was groundbreaking, as she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award.) Is the 2021 version of “West Side Story” worthy of 10 Academy Awards? No, but there are some standout performances that should bring more attention to some very talented cast members. They do all their own singing, unlike some of the stars of the original “West Side Story” movie.

Most fans of musicals already know the basic premise of “West Side Story,” which is set in New York City (specifically, in a working-class area of Manhattan’s West Side) in 1957. It’s a story inspired by William Shakeapeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In “West Side Story,” a sweet and innocent Puerto Rican woman named Maria, who’s in her late teens, falls in love with a slightly older, streetwise Polish American man named Tony, who is an ex-con trying to start a new and reformed life away from an all-white gang that he used to lead called the Jets. Maria’s domineering older brother Bernardo is the leader of an all-Puerto Rican rival gang called the Sharks. Bernardo is dating Maria’s sassy best friend Anita. Needless to say, the romance of Maria and Tony sparks a war between the Jets and the Sharks.

In the original “West Side Story” movie, Wood was Maria, Beymer was Tony, Moreno was Anita and Chakiris was Bernardo. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake (which also takes place in 1957), Rachel Zegler is María, Ansel Elgort is Tony, Ariana DeBose is Anita and David Alvarez is Bernardo. Unlike the original “West Side Story” movie, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake avoids any criticism of “whitewashing” racial casting, by casting the people of color characters with actors who are also people of color. Zegler is a Latina of Colombian heritage. DeBose is multiracial; in interviews, she sometimes identifies herself as African American. (DeBose’s father is Afro-Latino, and her mother is white.)

Perhaps the biggest and best change to the “West Side Story” remake is the clever idea to cast original “West Side Story” movie co-star Moreno in the role of a new character: Valentina, the no-nonsense but kind-hearted owner of a drugstore called Doc’s Chemists, where Tony works. In this version of “West Side Story,” Valentina is the widow of Doc, the store’s owner in the original “West Side Story” movie. (Doc was played by Ned Glass.) Considering all the racial discord in the story, the Valentina character gives the movie added poignancy because a Latina woman has given Tony a chance to redeem himself and start a new life.

Valentina represents the bridge between the divides caused by racism and xenophobia in the community that’s depicted in the movie. And there’s an extra layer of female empowerment/solidarity in a pivotal scene in the movie, when Anita defends herself from being attacked in the store by members of the Jets, and Valentina intervenes to put a stop to the assault. This scene has a greater impact than in the original “West Side Story,” when the upstanding but somewhat wishy-washy Doc was the one who stopped the attack.

Rather than putting the scene in a stereotypical context of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, this “West Side Story” movie has a woman in charge (Valentina), who is the unflinching moral compass in a maelstrom of hate and chaos. The scene is also symbolic of all the racism and sexism that women of color have had to experience and what happens when women help each other in moments of distress and pain. Moreno has talked extensively in interviews about how this scene was the most emotionally difficult one for her to film in the original “West Side Story,” and she has said it was a surreal experience to film it again in the “West Side Story” remake—this time, as the rescuer instead of the one being attacked.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake stays true to the main elements of the story. The movie opens with the Jets in a rubble-filled area that’s undergoing reconstruction to make way for higher-priced homes. The Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (played by Mike Faist), are hoodlums who come from dysfunctional families and are hostile toward non-white immigrants whom they feel are taking over the city. Since 1917, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory, and people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t stop people like the Jets (and many other xenophobic and racist people) from thinking that Puerto Ricans aren’t “real Americans.” If Tony had any past racism when he was in the Jets, it’s not directly mentioned in the movie. What’s clear is that Tony is now a reformed person and very much against racism.

Meanwhile, many of the Sharks, including Bernardo, dislike white people, whom they see as racist oppressors. Puerto Ricans such as Bernardo, María and Anita are U.S. citizens but feel like immigrants in the United States, where English is the dominant language and there’s open hatred and discrimination against people who aren’t white. Bernardo feels that the Sharks are superior to the Jets because, as he tells Riff in one of their many confrontations, at least most of the Sharks have jobs. The Jets—who are U.S.-born, mostly unemployed descendants of white European immigrants—are fueled by anger in their perception that the American Dream has been ripped away from them.

María, Bernardo, and Anita (who all pay rent and share the same apartment in this “West Side Story” remake) represent the American Dream of people whose first language is not English, which they’ve had to learn in order to get certain opportunities. María, Bernardo and Anita also represent Puerto Ricans who come to the United States in search of a better life while the majority of their families still live in Puerto Rico. Coming to a place like New York City—where the cost of living and is higher and the living spaces are smaller than most other U.S. cities—can be a rude awakening that can be handled with optimism or pessimism. This dichotomy is represented in one of the musical’s most famous song-and-dance numbers: “America,” with Anita taking the lead for the optimistic side, and Bernardo taking the lead for the pessimistic side.

A noticeable difference in this “West Side Story” remake is that the Puerto Ricans speak a lot more Spanish—and there are no subtitles. It’s a clear indication that Spielberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) wanted this version of “West Side Story” to be more inclusive to Spanish-speaking audiences and present a more realistic depiction of people who speak more than one language. Although the 2021 version of “West Side Story” has no subtitles for the Spanish-language dialogue, it’s easy for people who don’t know Spanish to figure out what what’s being said, based on the cast members’ tones of voice, body language and facial expressions.

In this movie remake, the Puerto Rican characters are less concerned about assimilating in English-speaking America than their counterparts were in the 1961 version of “West Side Story.” Valentina even says so, when she makes this comment about her interracial marriage: “I married a gringo. He thinks that makes me a gringo. I ain’t.”

“West Side Story” was ahead of its time for having the androgynous Anybodys character, who is presented in both movies as a young transgender man, during an era when the word “transgender” did not exist. In the “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys (played by Iris Menas) is a lookout for the Jets. Anybodys is sometimes referred to as a “girl,” but Anybodys would rather be just one of the guys.

There’s a point in the movie where people start using male pronouns to describe Anybodys—and that makes Anybodys very happy. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys has less screen time than the Anybodys in the first “West Side Story” movie. The character is depicted with more subtlety and less-exaggerated mannerisms in the remake.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” the movie begins with the introduction of the Jets, followed by the Sharks, and the tensions between the two gangs. The Jets are first seen emerging from the rubble with paint cans, which they use to commit vandalism on an outdoor wall mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (This vandalism of a Puerto Rican flag mural is new to the remake.) The Sharks see this vandalism, are offended, and a brawl ensues between the two gangs until police arrive to break up the fight.

On the scene is Officer Krupke (played by Brian d’Arcy James), a “regular Joe” cop who would like nothing more than for the Jets and the Sharks to stop fighting each other, even though he knows that’s not very realistic. Krupke’s swaggering boss is Lieutenant Schrank (played by Corey Stoll), who’s even more impatient with these rival gangs than Krupke is. Schrank gruffly insults the Jets by calling them “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” and he barks this order: “Evict yourself from my crime scene, Bernardo!”

The Jets and the Sharks don’t trust each other, but both gangs have even less trust of the police. It’s why no one in either gang will snitch when the police try to find out who started the violent fight. No one is arrested this time, but the fight’s not over. As soon as the cops leave, Riff and Bernardo agree that there should be a rumble to decide which gang will come out on top. Anita and María openly express their disapproval of Bernardo’s gang activities, but he doesn’t pay attention to them, and there’s not much María and Anita can do to stop him.

Riff is somewhat of a reluctant chief of the Jets because he became the default leader when Tony was sent to prison for attempted murder of a young man during a gang fight. Now on parole, Tony is keeping his distance from the Jets because he truly wants to turn his life around and no longer be a criminal. Tony will not rejoin the Jets, despite Riff’s constant pleas.

Faist’s version of Riff has an insecure scrappiness to how he handles his gang leadership, indicating that Riff craves and fears power. He looks like he’s got a more fascinating and harrowing story to tell than Russ Tamblyn’s version of Riff in the first “West Side Story” movie. Tamblyn’s Riff looks like a frat boy gone bad. Faist’s version of Riff looks like a real street survivor who’s had a rough life and has the facial scars to prove it.

Riff has a platinum-blonde girlfriend named Velma (played by Maddie Ziegler), who is loyal and loving to him, but she disapproves of him getting involved in violent crimes. It’s a change from the Velma in the first “West Side Story” movie, where Velma was much more of a gang moll who looked the other way or encouraged Riff to be a violent thug. Ziegler became an actress after years as a professional dancer. Her dance expertise shows in Velma’s feisty and eye-catching dance moves.

In this “West Side Story” remake, Tony goes into more details about his life in prison in ways that weren’t in the original “West Side Story” movie. He still talks more about how prison changed him and made him determined to lead a law-abiding and productive life, but he expresses more guilt about the crime and more remorse about how he hurt the victim. After he was released from prison, Valentina gave Tony a job and a place to stay. (He lives in the store’s basement.) Valentina has known the members of the Jets since they were children. She has become a mother figure to Tony, who is estranged from his parents.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” Tony and María meet and have a “love at first sight” encounter at a dance attended by local young people, including the members of the Jets and the Sharks. The dance’s chaperone announces at the dance that it’s a “social experiment” to better integrate white people and Latinos who live in the area. “And then you can all go back to your feral lives,” the chaperone cynically adds. However, racial segregation is still a fact of life that the attendees find difficult to change at this dance. They still congregate in groups according to race, including the inevitable dance-off where Anita and Bernardo outshine everyone else.

As an example of how much slicker this version of “West Side Story” is, the dance is held at a shiny-looking, well-lit school gymnasium, compared to the somewhat dark and grimy-looking dancehall in the original “West Side Story” movie. It’s a setting that looks a little too polished and well-kept for an area that’s supposed to be populated by people who are struggling financially and has public schools that are more run-down than they should be.

Tony has come to this dance reluctantly, after much persuasion from Riff, who wants to use the dance as away for Tony to see all of his former gang pals again. But once Tony and María lock eyes, meet cute behind the gym bleachers, and exchange some smitten dialogue, Tony can’t think of anything else but being with María. Tony and María couple up immediately by dancing together and having their first kiss just a few minutes after meeting that night. They agree to meet the next day at a museum.

Tony and María’s attraction to each other doesn’t go unnoticed. Bernardo orders Tony to stay away from María . Bernardo would rather that María date someone who’s Puerto Rican, such as his mild-mannered best friend Chino (played by Josh Andrés Rivera), who is not a member of the Sharks, although Chino would like to be. Chino was sort of Maria’s date at this dance, but Chino and María’s relationship has always been about platonic friendship only.

At the dance, Bernardo gets a little rough by pushing Tony away when he sees that Tony is interested in María. Riff and the rest of the Jets come to Tony’s defense, which leads the Sharks to get in on the dispute. María and Anita are disgusted with all of this seemingly never-ending fighting between the Sharks and the Jets, so they leave the dance. However, Tony doesn’t join his former gang cronies in this fight and instead runs out of the dance to look for María , but she is long gone.

The next day at Doc’s store, Tony has told Valentina about this new romance. He asks Valentina how to say, “I want to be with you forever” in Spanish, so that he can make this declaration of love to María on their first date. These kids move fast. Even Valentina notices how quickly Tony wants to commit to María, by cracking this joke: “You sure you don’t want to ask her out for coffee first?” Because this movie is set in the 1950s, when it was more common for people in the U.S. to get married in their late teens and early 20s, this swift courtship is easier to believe than if the movie had been set in the present day.

María and Tony are blissfully happy together in the short time that they’ve known each other, but their romance is threatened by the growing hatred between the Jets and the Sharks. The “West Side Story” remake keeps the sentiment that María and Tony have a pure love for each other. It’s a love that borders on obsession, especially in a scene where María gets some very bad news about something Tony did to hurt one of María’s loved ones, and her priority is to comfort Tony. However, there’s a slight but noticeable difference in how the remake presents this scene, which is in a better way than the first “West Side Story” movie.

The “West Side Story” remake has no drastic revisions to the songs’ tempos or arrangements. The movie also doesn’t add any original songs that were written specifically for this remake, in an attempt to get awards for new and original movie music. The song placements mostly stay true to the original, with some notable exceptions.

“I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s joyous ode to romance and self-confidence, has a different setting. In the original “West Side Story” movie, Maria sang “I Feel Pretty” in a private room with three seamstresses. In the “West Side Story” remake makes this musical number a much more public spectacle.

María works as a cleaning woman at a boutique. She sings “I Feel Pretty” while dancing through the rooms of the boutique with several other cleaning women during after-hours. This setting gives the scene a more aspirational tone to what the characters do, as they let loose in a boutique where they work but probably can’t afford the clothes that are sold in the boutique.

Fans of Moreno will have to wait until the last third of the movie for Valentina’s big musical moment: the show-stopping tune “Somewhere,” which she performs solo. It’s an absolute exquisite rendition that might make some viewers more than a little misty-eyed. All of the cast members rise to the occasion to make this “West Side Story” very entertaining and emotion-filled. There isn’t a mediocre performer in the movie’s principal cast.

Zegler carries her scenes as María with an eager-to-please demeanor. She doesn’t have the star power of Wood, but Zegler and Elgort have nice chemistry together as María and Tony. Elgort doesn’t always sound like the working-class New Yorker that he’s supposed to be as Tony when he speaks, but Elgort gives Tony the type of heartthrob charm that makes it easy to see why María falls so hard and fast for him. Elgort and Zegler have singing voices that are very good, but not particularly distinctive.

DeBose lights up every scene that she’s in and is the breakout star of the movie. Her version of Anita has a commanding presence and the flashiest dance movies. Debose’s larger-than-life portrayal of Anita is ideal for this type of splashy movie musical. Anita has a big personality, but she also has a more realistic view of life and love than starry-eyed María. And that’s why, for adults with enough life experience, Anita is a more relatable character than María.

Alvarez’s Bernardo has more machismo, as well as a little more emotional depth, than the Bernardo of the original “West Side Story” movie. Bernardo uses his arrogance to cover up his insecurities over feeling like he’s someone who’s “not good enough,” so he over-compensates. What he sees as being over-protective of María is really being over-controlling. What he sees as pride in being a Shark is really an endorsement of violent racism.

In the original “West Side Story,” Anita and Bernardo were an attractive couple, but you never got the impression that they had much romantic passion for each other. There’s more believable sexual heat with Anita and Bernardo in this “West Side Story” remake. DeBose and Alvarez seem to have natural chemistry with each other as Anita and Bernardo, who sees himself as the ultimate alpha male. Sex in the movie is hinted at but not explicitly shown. For example, Anita and Bernardo kiss passionately before slamming a bedroom door behind them; María and Tony wake up together half-dressed in bed.

As for the dazzling dance numbers, “West Side Story” movie remake choreographer Justin Peck brings his ballet background to the movie, with dance moves that are more complicated but a little more graceful, enhancing the stellar work by choreographer/director Robbins for the first “West Side Story” movie. DeBose is a standout in the dance scenes, which have a more sensuous and unbridled energy than the original “West Side Story” movie. (And that’s probably because depictions of sexuality in movies had more restrictions in movies released in 1961, compared to 2021.)

For the “West Side Story” remake, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production design make things look bigger and more over-the-top in scale. An overcast night can’t just be an overcast night. It looks like a fog-filled, full-moon scene out of a horror movie. A crumbling slum area can’t look like a crumbling slum area. It looks like a bombed-out war zone. It’s all very impressive, in terms of visuals.

And yet somehow, this more ambitious, bigger-budget version of “West Side Story” loses some of the neighborhood intimacy that the original “West Side Story” movie had. Everything looks professionally done in the remake, but just a little too staged and calculated. And maybe that’s because the movie was filmed and built on soundstages. (The “West Side Story” remake was filmed at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.) Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.

The ending of the “West Side Story” remake doesn’t end as abruptly as the first “West Side Story” does. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that the remake has a more melodramatic ending with some preachiness. It’s a revision that some “West Side Story” fans might like, while others won’t. This slightly new ending doesn’t take away from the overall spirit of “West Side Story,” which is a celebration of life and love, with the knowledge that both can be precious, fleeting and experienced with a lot of heartache.

20th Century Studios will release “West Side Story” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.

2021 Academy Awards: presenters and performers announced

April 23, 2021

The following is a combination of press releases from ABC:

Oscar® nominee Steven Yeun will join the ensemble cast slated to present at the 93rd Oscars®, show producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh announced today. “The Oscars” will air live on Sunday, April 25, 2021, on ABC.

“Surprise! We’re so excited to welcome Steven to the crew, and he completes our Oscars cast. No, really, this is it,” said Collins, Sher and Soderbergh.

The previously announced lineup includes Riz Ahmed, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Bryan Cranston, Viola Davis, Laura Dern, Harrison Ford, Bong Joon Ho, Regina King, Marlee Matlin, Rita Moreno, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger and Zendaya.

Celeste, H.E.R., Leslie Odom Jr., Laura Pausini, Daniel Pemberton, Molly Sandén and Diane Warren will perform the five nominated original songs in their entirety for “Oscars: Into the Spotlight,” the lead-in to the 93rd Oscars. One performance will be recorded in Húsavík, Iceland, and four at the Dolby Family Terrace of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Hosted by actors Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”) and Lil Rel Howery (“Bad Trip”), the 90-minute “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will highlight the nominees’ journey to Hollywood’s biggest night, give fans around the world the ultimate insiders’ sneak peek to the party and, for the first time, bring Oscar music to the festivities. The show will feature a special appearance by DJ Tara. “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will air Oscar Sunday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. EDT/3:30 p.m. PDT.  

The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and international locations via satellite.  “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will air live on ABC at 6:30 p.m. EDT/3:30 p.m. PDT. “The Oscars” will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT and in more than 200 territories worldwide.  “Oscars: After Dark” will immediately follow the Oscars show.

ABOUT THE ACADEMY
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a global community of more than 10,000 of the most accomplished artists, filmmakers and executives working in film. In addition to celebrating and recognizing excellence in filmmaking through the Oscars, the Academy supports a wide range of initiatives to promote the art and science of the movies, including public programming, educational outreach and the upcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Review: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,’ starring Rita Moreno

February 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and American Masters Films)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Culture Representation: The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” features a group of predominantly Hispanic people (and a few white people and black people), discussing Rita Moreno, the only Latina entertainer who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, also known as being an EGOT winner.

Culture Clash: Moreno talks about racism and sexism that caused problems for her.

Culture Audience: “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographical stories about celebrities with long careers who broke barriers, as well as frank discussions about what it’s like to be of Hispanic ethnicity in the predominantly white American entertainment industry.

A photo of Rita Moreno on the set of 1961’s “West Side Story” in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” doesn’t reveal anything new and significant that Rita Moreno didn’t already reveal in her 2013 self-titled memoir. However, this laudatory documentary, which includes Moreno’s participation, is still inspirational and will be very informative to people who know very little about Moreno’s story before seeing this movie. Breezily directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows a pleasant but not groundbreaking celebrity documentary formula of flattering commentaries from other celebrities and pundits; archival footage and exclusive documentary footage; and candid but selective confessions from the celebrity. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Moreno preparing for her 87th birthday party in 2018. But she’s not being fussed over by an entourage of people. She’s in her house’s kitchen laying out the silverware and the decorations, with some help from assistants. Moreno is all too aware that people watching this scene will be surprised that she’s doing the kind of work a personal assistant or event planner would do.

Moreno quips, “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this. Show business: That’s why you must never really believe anything about your fame and all that kind of bullshit. Yeah, it goes up and down. Right now, it’s up.”

The documentary includes footage of the party (which has a Cuban costume theme, because Moreno says she likes hosting themed costume parties), where an energetic and lively Moreno dances happily with guests. She’s charismatic, humorous and has a very obvious zest for life. It’s that mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence that Moreno has on display throughout the entire documentary.

And these personality traits have helped Moreno (who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico) sustain a career for longer than a lot of people end up living. But, of course, she didn’t get to where she is so easily. And the documentary rightfully gives Moreno a lot of screen time to tell her story: the good, the bad and the ugly.

She recounts that from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer: “Being a natural performer, I think I was born that way, I was wired that way. I wanted to be a movie star since the time I saw my first picture.”

Moreno’s mother Rosa María, who was a seamstress, left behind Moreno’s father Francisco and Moreno’s brother Francisco Jr. in Puerto Rico to move with Moreno to New York City in 1936. Moreno vividly remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking that the statue represented the president of the United States. It might have been a future indicator that Moreno would go on to support feminism and other progressive issues when she became a social activist in the 1960s.

The documentary could have used some insight from Moreno about how leaving behind her father and brother impacted her life and if she ever kept in touch with them. It’s unclear if the filmmakers didn’t ask her those questions, or if they did ask but Moreno didn’t want to talk about it on camera. At any rate, she doesn’t mention her family left behind in Puerto Rico for the rest of the documentary.

Nor does there seem to be any attempt by the filmmakers who find anyone who knew Moreno from her childhood or her teenage years, to verify some of her stories of what life was like for her before she became famous. It’s an omission that’s an example of how this documentary is certainly good about rehashing information that Moreno has already talked about in several interviews and in her memoir, but the documentary doesn’t really dig beneath the celebrity veneer in a way that is entirely revealing, even if it might make the celebrity uncomfortable.

Moreno says that her mother fully supported her showbiz aspirations from a very young age, because Rosa María would often dress her daughter up like a doll and encourage her to perform wherever she could. By the age of 15, Moreno dropped out of high school because she was busy working as an entertainer. By the age of 16, she was supporting her family with her income.

But that doesn’t mean that her entry into showbiz went smoothly. Moreno remembers that as a child living in New York City, which was very racially segregated at the time, she had insecurities because she was treated as inferior because of her race. And as she became a young woman, she says she was often the target of stereotypes of being a “spicy” or “sexpot” Latina whose only worth was in her physical appearance.

A fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer (the co-founder of MGM Studios) led to Moreno’s first big break in the movies. She went with her mother for an appointment to see Mayer at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Mayer was staying in the penthouse. Moreno’s first major role model as a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor. And so, for this important meeting with Mayer, Moreno says in the documentary that she deliberately made herself look like Elizabeth Taylor as much as possible. The tactic worked, and Mayer decided on the spot to give Moreno a contract at MGM, because he said that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”

Moreno says in the documentary that this big break is an example of how one person can change the course of someone’s career in a matter of minutes, in ways that years of hard work cannot do. Moreno had a contract with MGM, but it came with strict limitations, because it was back in the days when movie studios controlled and dictated whom their rising young stars could date and how they would appear in public. And because of her racial identity, Moreno was always typecast as the “ethnic girl” where she usually played supporting characters who were written as subservient and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

It’s fairly well-known that Moreno’s most famous movie role was in the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Nothing new about her “West Side Story” experience is revealed in this documentary that she hasn’t already talked about elsewhere. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” making her the first entertainer of Hispanic ethnicity to win an Oscar. She still jokes about how her speech was short because she was so shocked that she won, and she’s been making up for that short speech ever since.

Moreno is also in director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which is due out in December 2021. Details about her role in the movie have not yet been revealed as of this writing, but she plays a character named Valentina. The documentary has brief footage of her walking onto the set of the “West Side Story” remake, with Spielberg making a quick cameo.

Moreno’s traumatic experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t glossed over in the documentary. Just like she’s done in other interviews and in her memoir, she talks about being raped in her 20s by her agent at the time. (Moreno does not name him.) She says she continued to work with him because he was the only agent she knew at the time who would represent a Latina performer. Moreno says that rape experience also fueled a lot of realistic anger when her “West Side Story” character Anita successfully fought off a gang of male attackers.

Moreno also shares the experience of being sexually demeaned at an industry party in Beverly Hills when she was in her early 30s. The perpetrators were not only a powerful party guest but also the party host, according to Moreno. She describes being told by party guest Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia Pictures at the time: “You know, I’d like to fuck you.” She says that, at the time, she laughed off this sexual aggression to his face, because she was afraid of the backlash she would get if she got visibly angry.

And later, when the party host (whom she does not name but she describes as a well-known distillery mogul) asked her to dance, he sexually grinded on her without her consent. During this assault, he said to her, “You’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” Moreno says she was so mortified and scared that she asked the Mexican gardeners at the party to take her home, and they willingly obliged because they could sense that she had been violated in some way.

Moreno mentions that these gardeners were the “classiest people at the party.” And it’s clear that she tells this story to serve as an example of why people shouldn’t be dazzled by money and fame as a reason to think that someone is “better” than someone else. Money and fame don’t buy class. And being rich or famous doesn’t mean someone is incapable of heinous acts.

Moreno’s story is also an example of how winning an Oscar isn’t an automatic guarantee of getting bigger and better opportunities. After winning an Oscar, she says was only offered roles where she played the type of character that was a lot like Anita in “West Side Story.” Because she didn’t want to be typecast, Morena says in the documentary she turned down roles and that she didn’t do movies for another seven years after she won the Oscar for “West Side Story.” She says that instead, she worked in TV and theater.

This is where this documentary’s filmmakers show some carelessness. A quick look at Moreno’s filmography shows that she in fact did appear in several movies during the seven years (1962-1969) that she says that she didn’t. But she was correct in saying that she also worked in television during that time period. Her inaccuracy doesn’t mean that she deliberately lied, but it’s very possible her memory of that time period isn’t as accurate as it should be. It’s why celebrity documentaries aren’t always reliable if the celebrity controls too much of the narrative and the filmmakers don’t really care to fact check.

Moreno also talks about her torturous romance with Marlon Brando, whom she says she dated off and on for seven or eight years from the mid-1950s the early 1960s. It’s clear that she’s still conflicted about him all these years later. She bitterly describes him as an “anathema in my life,” but she also says that he loved her. And she has some therapy-speak when she declares, “He was the daddy I couldn’t please. I think about [him] now. What was there to love?”

She describes Brando as brilliant but also very selfish and controlling. Just as she did in her memoir, Moreno talks about how she got pregnant with Brando’s baby and secretly hoped that he would marry her. Instead, she found out he didn’t want to be her husband or the father of her child, and she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She had medical complications after the abortion that were traumatic for her.

Moreno also talks about how she was so distraught over the relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide. This is information that Moreno revealed several years ago. After they ended their relationship, Moreno and Brando co-starred in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day,” where they have an argument scene and she slaps him in the face. She says that it didn’t take much acting on her part because she channeled her real-life rage at Brando into the scene.

If there’s any good that came out of her relationship with Brando, she says it was that he helped awaken her social consciousness during the 1960s. She became involved in the civil rights movement and feminist causes before it was “trendy” to do so. She says of her progressive political activism: “For the first time, I felt useful.” The movie includes video footage of her giving speeches and attending political marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In one scene in the movie, Moreno is shown in her “One Day at a Time” dressing room, watching on TV the 2018 U.S. Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Donald Trump for the Supreme Court. Moreno watches Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s from high school, testify that he sexually assaulted Ford in 1982, when they were teenagers. Moreno comments that she believes Ford, and that some of the testimony about sexual assault is triggering for her.

Moreno also describes her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who later became her manager. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2010, at the age of 90. She recalls how she was charmed during their early courtship because he wasn’t aware that she was famous when they first started talking to each other. Moreno also said one of the best things about their relationship was that he had a knack for making her laugh.

But she’s also candid about admitting that toward the end of their marriage, she basically fell out of love with him, but they never got divorced because he loved her more than she loved him. Moreno also says that she and her husband had terrible fights and had a very dysfunctional marriage. However, Moreno confesses that they were skilled at hiding their marriage problems from the world, including their daughter (and only child), Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who is interviewed in the documentary. Gordon Fisher says that her parents had a good marriage with normal disagreements that weren’t too serious.

That’s not the way her mother describes it. Moreno says that Gordon was a “control freak” who didn’t like the “raucous and loud” side of her. She says, “When Lenny died, I gave that little Rosita [referring to herself] permission to leave.” She also admits she felt relieved when he died because “I didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.”

Moreno has mixed feelings about her late husband, but there’s no doubt that she and her daughter adore each other. It’s mentioned that when Moreno’s daughter was in her 20s, she toured with Moreno and was Moreno’s backup singer/dancer. The documentary shows how Moreno and her daughter are still very close. Moreno also talks lovingly of her two grandsons (Cameron and Justin Fisher), who are briefly shown in the documentary.

The movie chronicles several of Moreno’s career highlights, including winning a Grammy for the 1972 cast recording album of children’s TV series “The Electric Company”; a Tony Award in 1975 for her featured performance in “The Ritz”; and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978, for guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

As for the title of this movie, it’s inspired by slogan on a T-shirt that Moreno wore when she received a career achievement award at a Television Critics Association event in 2018. Footage of her getting ready for the event and her acceptance speech is included in the documentary. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a saying that sums up her persona perfectly: gutsy, vibrant and never forgetting her humble beginnings.

Most of the people who provide commentary for the documentary are other famous entertainers. Their remarks about Moreno are all positive, while some of the Latina actresses (such as Eva Longoria and Karen Olivo) expound on the specific barriers that Hispanic female entertainers often face in showbiz. Other people interviewed in the documentary include some actors who’ve co-starred with Moreno over the years, including George Chakiris (“West Side Story”), Morgan Freeman (“The Electric Company”), Héctor Elizondo (“Cane”) and Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”).

Also weighing in with their thoughts are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg (another EGOT winner), Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, “One Day at a Time” executive producer Norman Lear, “Life Without Makeup” director Tony Taccone, “Oz” creator Tom Fontana and Moreno’s longtime manager John Ferguson, who breaks down in tears when he remembers how Moreno found her will to live after her suicide attempt. (Miranda and Lear are two of the executive producers of this documentary.) And some academics provide their perspectives on Moreno and her impact on pop culture, such as Columbia University artist/scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The New School cultural historian Julia Foulkes and Columbia University film historian/author Annette Insdorf.

The documentary uses some whimsical animation at times to illustrate some parts of Moreno’s storytelling. But this added creative flair and all the celebrities who gush about her in the movie are all just icing on the cake. Moreno has more than enough charisma and has lived such a full life that her story could be a miniseries, not just a documentary film.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions will release “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. PBS’s “American Masters” series will premiere the movie on October 5, 2021.

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