When film fans got their first glimpse of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake during this year’s Oscars, they heard a familiar voice singing the famous song “Somewhere” in the trailer: Rita Moreno.
The original Anita from 1961’s “West Side Story,” Moreno has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner executive-produces and appears in Spielberg’s film, out in December; she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime artistic achievement in 2015 and a new documentary about her life, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl who Decided to Go for It,” hits theaters Friday after screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“It goes up and down,” Moreno, 89, says in the doc of her eight decades in showbiz. “Right now, it’s up”
Moreno was born Rosa Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in 1931. She moved to New York City in 1936 with her divorced mother, leaving her brother behind. There, Moreno quickly found her passion — Spanish dance. At just 6, she made her debut in a Greenwich Village nightclub.
“I dropped out of school when I was 15, something like that, and I started to work right away,” she said of her performing life.
She continued dancing in late-night New York venues, when one day an MGM talent scout spotted her at a recital. Impressed, he told Moreno’s mother that MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer was in town, staying in the penthouse of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and Rita could audition for him.
The pair went to the Waldorf, where her mother stormed up to the concierge desk and said, “We have to see Louis B. Ma-jor!”
At the tryout, Mayer gave Moreno one look and said, “My God — she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”
“I got a contract from that, from not doing anything,” Moreno says in the documentary. “Here’s the funny thing — you work your ass off all your life, and then something like this happens, and it didn’t take anything but a connection with somebody.”
Six months later, Moreno and mom moved to Hollywood, where she was cast in a series of embarrassing, submissive roles as native and island girls in movies, such as “Pagan Love Song” and the musical “The King and I,” in which she played Tuptim. Star Yul Brynner let her know how he felt about her part in a phone call.
“You know your part is very boring because you’re just a soubrette [a flirty stock character],” Moreno recalls him saying. “All you do is pine and look sad because you can’t have your lover and that’s boring.”
Moreno agreed, and her résumé got a boost when she got a more substantial part opposite Gene Kelly in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”
But someone came into the actress’ life who nearly destroyed her: Marlon Brando.
“He looked like a Greek god, for heaven’s sake,” she says of the “A Streetcar Named Desire” actor, whom she started dating in 1954. However, Brando would abuse and cheat on Moreno. He married twice during their nearly seven-year relationship, and she wrote in her memoir that she dated Elvis Presley to make him jealous. At one point, the actress became pregnant with Brando’s child. He got word of the news, found a discreet abortion doctor and sent his girlfriend there — but the procedure was botched and Moreno bled for days.
The relationship became so distressing, Moreno attempted suicide.
“When I tried to do away with myself, I wanted to do it because I couldn’t take the pain anymore of the relationship I had with Marlon Brando,” she says. “It was humiliating and I was letting him step all over me. And I hated myself so much — it was a very strange reason.
“I wanted to get rid of myself because I don’t think I deserved to live. And I took the pills.”
She survived, and just seven years later worked in a movie with Brando again, “The Night of the Following Day.” In one scene, the actor slaps her character across the face.
“That opened an old scar of when he would take advantage of me, when he had other women,” she says. “Pond scum came to the surface, and I started screaming at him — and they never stopped filming. The director loved it.”
Today, Moreno is best remembered for her Oscar-winning role in “West Side Story.” She thinks back fondly to the night she beat Judy Garland (“Judgment at Nuremberg”) and Lotte Lenya (“The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone”) to win Best Supporting Actress.
“When [Rock Hudson] called my name out, the place went crazy. Latinos were sticking their heads out the window, screaming, ‘She did it! She did it!,’ ” she said.