Rita Moreno decides to go for it with PBS documentary

Rick's Reviews

Rita Moreno’s life goes under the spotlight in a “American Masters” documentary airing on Valley PBS. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Rita Moreno won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her work in the 1961 film “West Side Story.” It was a career turning point for the Puerto Rico native but not what she expected as revealed in the new PBS offering “American Masters – Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”

“I couldn’t get a job. The very few that were offered to me were lesser gang movies and some parts as a coffee pourer for a Hispanic family. It was the most depressing time of my life,” Moreno says. “I didn’t work because I kept turning down things that were lesser versions of ‘West Side Story.’

“Heartbreaking, really.”

Despite all her success, Hollywood agents would not work with her because they didn’t think she had what it takes to be successful in the acting world. Moreno – who also has a  Grammy and Tony on her awards shelf – kept pushing and finally started to work again.

The “American Masters” production examines the highs and lows of Moreno’s 70 years in show business. Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Terrence McNally, Karen Olivo, Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda offer their insights to what has made Moreno so successful despite all of the obstacles she had to face.

The documentary also looks at her work on the PBS series “The Electric Company,” her Broadway and feature film version of “The Ritz,” “Oz” and “One Day at a Time.”  It shows how Moreno’s talent and resilience helped her break barriers and paved the way for new generations of artists by refusing to be pigeonholed. She fought for Latinx representation in a variety of genres.

Director Mariem Pérez Riera says, “As a filmmaker, woman and Puerto Rican, I am proud to have the opportunity to tell Rita’s story. Her many victories in the face of prejudice are an inspiration to me. Hopefully, this film will give strength to the women all over the world, who today, face a similar fight towards equality.”

A major part of the documentary looks at Moreno’s connection to “West Side Story” from the Broadway production to being part of the new film version being made by Steven Spielberg. Focusing on that role makes sense because it has been such a big part of Moreno’s life.

She considers playing Anita in “West Side Story” to be the toughest acting job in her long career.

“I was very aware and sensitive to the fact that I was representing in a very, very major way. I almost didn’t do the film because there was a lyric at the very beginning of ‘America’ that was so detrimental to Puerto Rico,” Moreno says. “I thought ‘I don’t think I can do that lyric’.”

The original lyric that made her question her efforts to land the role referred to Puerto Rico as an “ugly island, island of tropic diseases.” A few days later she got revised lyrics that said “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.”

“American Masters — Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” debuts at 9 p.m. Oct. 5 on Valley PBS. It will be available for streaming through PBS.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.

“POV: Fruits of Labor,” 10 p.m. Oct. 4, Valley PBS

Director Emily Cohen Ibañez has seen a lot of films dealing with essential workers where their plight has been used to elevate them to a heroic status. That was the last thing she wanted to do with her documentary, “Fruits of Labor.”

Her film follows Ashley, a Mexican-American teenager living in a small agricultural town on the central coast of California. Her tale is one regarding the seen and unseen forces that trap many families in poverty,

“I think what people really want is a living wage so that families can afford to live in stable housing,” Ibañez says. “One of the themes in the film is you’re seeing how families are terrorized, not just on the border, but many miles away from the border.

“It becomes a part of one’s everyday life to worry about ICE raids or ones with families that have mixed documented status.”

Ashley is a high school senior who dreams of graduating and going to college. The documentary shows that when ICE raids in her community threaten to separate her family, she is forced to become their primary breadwinner.

While most of her friends are thinking about prom and graduation, Ashley finds herself working days in the strawberry fields and the night shift at a processing plant, with little time left for sleep or studies.

Ibañez considers herself fortunate to have Ashley as the subject of the film.

“Something that’s really remarkable about Ashley is she both cares about making a better life for herself and her family but also for the community,” Ibañez says. “I found that really striking for such a young woman.

“I met her when she was 15. And to have that kind of vision, I think you can see this continue through her as she’s coming into her own power and has come of age.”

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