(CNN)Like everything else she’s done, Rita Moreno is an exceptional storyteller, turning “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” — an “American Masters” documentary hitting theaters first — into a dazzling look at the much-adorned star’s career, and the doors left shut, despite her success, by being a Latina in Hollywood during the days of the studio system.
Moreno is in the select group EGOT winners — people who have earned an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Now 89, she’s introduced in the film at a party celebrating her 87th birthday, offering a quick demonstration of what a force of nature she remains. (She also remains outspoken, having waded into the controversy over “In the Heights” while appearing on Stephen Colbert’s program.)
As for her accomplishments — including an Academy Award for “West Side Story,” and a role in its upcoming remake from Steven Spielberg — producer Norman Lear, who featured Moreno in his reboot of “One Day at a Time,” says, “I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more.”
Yet as director Mariem Pérez Riera’s crisply made film makes clear, for the little girl who moved from Puerto Rico to New York with her mother as a child, fulfilling that dream meant overcoming all the impediments thrown at her, and enduring the indignities that went with being an actress of color — even one who consciously sought to resemble Elizabeth Taylor when she auditioned as a teenager — during those years.
Moreno met with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer at age 16, impressing him enough to land a studio contract. But those years came with being “treated like a sex object,” as she recalls, which included being sent on “pretend dates” with actors by the studio’s publicity department and being cast in an assortment of “native girl” roles that prompted her to perfect an all-purpose accent.
“I wanted to turn the parts down, but that’s all that was offered,” Moreno says, noting that the message from her bosses came through “loud and clear: Shut up and be sexy.”
Being sexy also meant being crudely propositioned by Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn (fleeing a party to avoid him) and, she says, being raped by her agent — a story she shares while watching coverage of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in 2018, snapping tart commentary at the TV.
Unlike Rita Hayworth, who masked her cultural identity, Moreno turned it into an asset with “West Side Story,” although even her acclaimed role in that movie didn’t open the floodgates as one might have expected. The paucity of worthwhile parts forced her to keep reinventing herself, from her Tony-winning stage role in “The Ritz” to TV work ranging from children’s series “The Electric Company,” whose album earned her a Grammy, to the grim prison drama “Oz.”
Off screen, Moreno engaged in activism that included the civil-rights movement and endured a lengthy and toxic romance with Marlon Brando. Clips from her role opposite Brando in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day” take on a different hue hearing her discuss their dysfunctional relationship and the emotional scars she bore from it.
Produced by, among others, Lear and “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” conveys the highs and lows of Moreno’s life, while featuring an astute lineup of talking heads, including academics, peers like “West Side Story” co-star George Chakiris and Karen Olivo, who played the Anita role on Broadway. Those conversations consider the battles still being fought — underscored by the “In the Heights” colorism debate — as well as the extent to which subsequent generations owe a debt to Moreno’s struggles and triumphs.
The net effect is a tribute to all that Moreno achieved over the course of a 70-year career, tempered by an equally bittersweet asterisk: How high would this “girl” have flown, given her talents, without facing those formidable headwinds?
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” premieres in theaters on June 18.