Mariem Pérez Riera directs Rita Moreno documentary
Iconic trailblazing artist Rita Moreno knew she wanted to be in movies from “the time she could say ‘movies.’” So states the actor, who also is one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) Award-winners, in the inspiring and entertaining documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
Directed, edited and produced by Mariem Pérez Riera, the film is a celebration of Moreno’s life and career, which has spanned more than 70 years. Executive-produced by Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and opens on Friday at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Landmark Kendall Square and AMC Boston Common.
The documentary illuminates Moreno’s talent and her resilience as she broke barriers, fought for representation in Hollywood, and became a cultural icon and human rights activist, while paving the way for the next generation.
Pérez Riera says she was privileged to see Moreno behind the scenes of “One Day at a Time” (her son Marcel Ruiz played Moreno’s grandson on the sitcom) and that directing the documentary was important to her because she wanted to show not just “a show reel of her career,” but the side of Moreno that the public didn’t know.
“I wanted everyone to see the Rita that I was seeing. The fragile, tiny, petite woman who would come to set driving by herself with no wig, with no makeup, serving herself food, someone who was like everybody else,” says Pérez Riera in a recent Zoom interview.
The director, who read Moreno’s memoir many times, wanted to show “that side of her that is insecure, that is fragile — and me being a woman and a Puerto Rican and going through some of the same experiences that … she went through 50, 60 years ago, it was important for me to talk about that.”
The documentary reveals lesser-known struggles Moreno faced on her path to stardom, including the sexism and abuse she faced in Hollywood, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and serious depression, before becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” in 1961.
“Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” includes archival footage and photos interweaved with current interviews with Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Héctor Elizondo, George Chakiris, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Moreno’s daughter Fernanda Gordon Fisher and many others, discussing Moreno’s impact in Hollywood, film and television, and in their lives.
Like Moreno, Pérez Riera’s professional career also began at a young age, after a terrible experience as the lead actor on the film, “The Two Worlds of Angelita.” She recounted how the film’s director wanted her to cry in a specific scene, and the 9-year-old actress didn’t think the character should be crying. So, the director began yelling at her and telling her horrible things in front of the whole crew. Pérez Riera finally began crying, and that’s when the director yelled “Action.”
“After I finished that, I realized ‘Wow, I’m going to become a director, and I would never do that to an actor,’” says Pérez Riera. “From then on, I wanted to be a director.”
That opportunity came years later, after she graduated from college. She made her directorial debut with the documentary short “Cuando lo pequeno se hace grande” in 2002, about the Puerto Ricans who fought against the United States’ military presence on the island of Vieques. Since then, she has gone on to direct, write, produce and edit several other projects. The multi-hyphenate edited the 2008 feature film “Talento de Barrio” starring rapper Daddy Yankee, and in 2013 directed, wrote and edited the TV series “Chamacas.”
With “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” Pérez Riera is the first Puerto Rican woman to write, edit and direct a PBS “American Masters” series. The idea and importance of representation is not lost on the filmmaker, and she’s proud of the fact that not only is the documentary about the groundbreaking Puerto Rican actress, but the team behind the documentary includes many Puerto Ricans from the island in co-producing, cinematography, sound and animation roles.
“I hope that people are able to relate,” says Pérez Riera, when asked about what she hopes audiences take away from Moreno’s life and story. “You don’t have to be a Puerto Rican woman to relate to her. You just have to be an immigrant, or you just have to be someone that has received a lot of prejudice and discrimination, to find in her story some inspiration and some strength to continue going and continue doing what you want to do. That’s what I want. For people to get inspired through her story.”