DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Rosita, Rita and the Rose

When I saw “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” was screening during the Rose Theatre’s reopening weekend, I too decided to go for it.

So there we were, the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony winner and I, spending a summer Sunday evening together, having the most candid of conversations.

She arrived in New York City a Puerto Rican kid called Rosita. Looking up at the Statue of Liberty, she remembers thinking the green lady was holding up a giant ice cream cone.

But as lush and warm as her birthplace had been, New York was gray and frigid in wintertime.

Moreno’s mother manages to get her teenage daughter a meeting with Louis B. Mayer of MGM studios; labeled a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,” she boards a train to Hollywood, where her career begins.

The actor was assigned to role after role as a dark-skinned, exotic maiden.

She played a Pacific Islander, an Egyptian, a Native American, various Latinas and a Burmese girl in “The King and I.”

Then came 1961 and the role of Anita in “West Side Story.”

This was the breakthrough, not only because the movie was so huge, not only because Moreno won the Academy Award for her portrayal, but because this character was made of steel and dignity — just like the actor.

These days we’d call her a badass.

In the documentary, Whoopi Goldberg is one of the performers who reflect on Moreno’s career.

In playing Anita, she created her own heroine, her own role model, Goldberg says.

What a concept.

After enduring tokenism, belittlement and outright abuse — Moreno’s agent raped her — she rose up, rose above, and showed us all how that’s done. Justice, just for a moment.

After “West Side Story” and the Oscar, Moreno expected to be offered roles to match her depth and talent. But no.

For seven years, she didn’t do another movie because, as she recalls in her documentary, the same old stereotypical gang stories clogged her mailbox.

Here again, we have a woman standing tall.

Moreno held out for quality material, and became one of the cast members on public television’s “The Electric Company,” portrayed a nun and prison counselor on HBO’s “Oz” and then appeared in the renaissance version of the sitcom “One Day at a Time” on Netflix.

On Feb. 25, 2010, President Barack Obama presented Moreno with the National Medal of Arts, the United States’ highest honor for artistic excellence.

Moreno has also lived through darkness and depression, and the documentary doesn’t shy away from that.

She had an ill-fated romance with Marlon Brando.

She attempted suicide.

She later married a doctor, Lenny Gordon, who, it turned out, was a controlling husband who couldn’t stand her self-described raucous personality.

For years and years, Moreno carefully hid her unhappiness.

Now Moreno is 89 and still gorgeous.

In “Go for It,” we see her with and without makeup, with and without her hair done up.

Thanks to the Rose Theatre manager who introduced the documentary — pronouncing director Mariem Perez Riera’s name with care — I learned that Moreno has two big moments coming in December.

On the 10th, Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” is set for theatrical release.

In another stroke of poetic justice, Moreno appears in it in a role created especially for her.

And on Dec. 11, she’ll celebrate her 90th birthday.

I can only hope to mark the occasion with the new “Story” at the Rose, where it feels delicious to hear my fellow moviegoers’ laughter, listen to the music filling the theater, and watch as every last credit rolls across the screen.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.

Her column runs the first and third Wednesday of the month. The next one will appear Aug. 18.

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