Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 17th, 2021
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (Mariem Pérez Riera, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1931, actress Rita Moreno has had a long career on stage and screen, as well as in song, and is one of just 16 EGOT winners. Depending on one’s generation, she may be known to you from many different media, including West Side Story (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), PBS’s The Electric Company (with her signature cry, “Hey, you guys!”), various Broadway shows, Netflix’s recent relaunch of One Day at a Time, and more. I remember how amazed I was when I first realized it was she (dressed as a flapper) playing Zelda in the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain; she’s been around, and active in the moving-image industry, for that long. Now, in Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, director Mariem Pérez Riera (De Puerto Rico para el Mundo), gives this great star her documentary due. Following its Sundance 2021 premiere and recent Tribeca 2021 screening, it now opens in theaters June 18. If you’re a fan of her work – and even if you’re not – go see it.
Pérez Riera has access not only to her subject for a variety of interviews, but copious amounts of archival footage, taken from films, televisions programs, theatrical shows, home movies and beyond. She complements all this with supporting material in the form of talking heads from the likes of scholars Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Julia Foulkes; costars past and present such as Justina Machado, Héctor Elizondo, Morgan Freeman and George Chakiris; her current manager John Ferguson; and modern-day friend and fanboy (and fellow Puerto Rican) Lin-Manuel Miranda. Moreno may have cause right now to regret that last connection, however, given the mini-controversy this week over her comments in support of the filmed version of his In the Heights, but she has survived this long despite the many hurdles in her way, and I suspect she will live to shine once again. I certainly hope so (not to take away from the concerns raised over what she said).
Beyond her career, we learn about her early life, her loves (including an affair with Marlon Brando, during which she aborted a pregnancy), marriage (to the late cardiologist Leonard Gordon) and motherhood (to Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who appears here, also). Her own childhood was filled with uncertainty and loss, her mother moving her to the U.S. mainland for a better life, leaving her little brother behind. Like the older (by 13 years) Margarita Carmen Cansino, otherwise known as Rita Hayworth, Moreno at first took care to hide her Latinx heritage, dressing to look like Elizabeth Taylor for an audition with studio head Louis B. Mayer, though she would soon find herself cast in movie roles as a “native girl,” forced to darken her skin. She also had to adopt a variety of accents (which she laughingly describes as all basically the same one), stereotyped as an exotic other, something which she certainly had to do for her iconic role (for better or for worse) in West Side Story, as well. She was, sadly, also raped by her agent, and thereafter struggled to achieve enough status to be able to make her own way, on her own terms, so that could never happen again.
Eventually, that dream would, indeed, come true, and the movie lays out the entirety of her narrative in great detail. What emerges is a portrait of a vibrant human being who has earned every accolade through hard sweat and tears. She stands tall as a model of resilience and talent, as ready to work now as ever. The film that surrounds her exceptional story, by contrast, is fairly conventional biopic material, with nothing that cinematically astounds. But Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It nevertheless does what it sets out do, and allows Moreno to do most of the talking. She’s worth hearing and seeing, so listen in and watch.