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Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Featuring Rita Moreno, Eva Longoria, George Chakiris, Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, Héctor Elizondo, Karen Olivo, Justina Machado, Sonia Manzano, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mitzi Gaynor, Chita Rivera, Morgan Freeman, Norman Lear, Terrence McNally, Steven Spielberg, Todd Grinnell, Rep. Jackie Speier, Sonia Sotomayer, Tom Fontana, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Julia Foulkes, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Annette Insdorf, Justin Fisher, Cameron Fisher and Whoopi Goldberg.

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera.

Distributed by Roadside Attractions. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13.

It almost feels like Rita Moreno has always been in our lives – and for most of us, she has. She was a Latinx icon before there were Latinx icons.

Most of us remember her first for the legendary role of Anita in the original 1961 film version of West Side Story. (Moreno will also be in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of the classic musical, so in a way the show will be like bookends to her career.)

However, most people don’t remember that she was actually a rather established actress in the old Hollywood studio system long before that role made her a star. For example, did you remember that she had a pretty substantial supporting role in Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds? I didn’t. Did you remember that she was also in The King & I? Me either.

In fact, West Side Story was Moreno’s 20th film appearance in just over 10 years in the studio system. Of course, in a pre-woke Hollywood, a young Puerto Rican actress – in fact one of the few actresses of Latin descent working in films at all in those days – had to play some pretty demeaning roles. And not just as Latin characters, she was called upon to play Indians, Asians, Egyptians, Italians – pretty much any foreign group who had a slightly darker skin tone.

In this massively entertaining documentary on her life, Moreno explains that she was a young girl who didn’t think she had any power (and at that time, she undoubtedly didn’t), so she did the roles, even though it was humiliating to her. She created a generic vaguely foreign-sounding accent which she used interchangeably in many different roles as many different nationalities of women – and no one ever once questioned it.

From those humble beginnings she has put together a show business career which has spanned over 70 years. She is one of the rare people in the world who has the great distinction of getting the EGOT – she has won two Emmys (for appearances on both The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files), a Grammy (for a record from the children’s TV series The Electric Company), an Oscar (for West Side Story) and a Tony (for The Ritz). If that were not enough, she also was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor award for lifetime achievement in 2015 and a Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award in 2013.

In a weird way, Rita Moreno is sort of like a real-life Forrest Gump; she just happened to be there when history was taking place. She was a young actress on the set when Gene Kelly performed his legendary “Singin’ in the Rain” performance. She was a political activist standing just 15 feet away from Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave the world changing “I Have a Dream” speech. She was on the cover of Life magazine when she was still a fairly unknown actress of 25. She bewitched and became the muse of Marlon Brando – the most famous actor in the world at the time – starting a very dysfunctional relationship which lasted on and off for years.

Now 89 years old and still full of energy and vitality – and still working with great regularity – Moreno makes a charming and surprisingly candid host for this guided history of her life, her career, her passions and her causes. It goes without saying – we’ve been getting evidence of this for decades – that Rita Moreno is one hell of a compelling storyteller.

Even when things get a little darker – discussing her shame about some early roles, her self-destructive relationship with Brando, or her surprising revelation that her long-time “perfect” marriage was far from that – Moreno always makes the stories engaging and blisteringly honest. She also goes into great detail about her passionate devotion to social and political causes and activism. She discusses the casual racism and sexism that she experienced as a young actress and throughout her life, and she does not let herself off the hook for what happened, either.

It also takes a deep dive through her career, showing the early studio days, through West Side Story, through her gig on The Electric Company, all the way up to her recent four season run on the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time and her upcoming appearance in the new West Side Story.

It shows many friends, co-workers, fans and family members whose life were made fuller because of the doors that Moreno had knocked down in a life dedicated to never settling for less. The documentary takes its subtitle Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It from a glittery t-shirt which Moreno wore to an awards dinner. The world is a better place because she made that decision.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: June 18, 2021.


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