‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ celebrates and speaks frankly

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” –  Rita Moreno loves to dance. 

Dance, sing, and act! 

At 89 years young, this entertainment legend became a household name on April 9, 1962, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her treasured role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961).  This 5’ 2” thespian – with probably the shortest speech in Academy Awards’ history – has fashioned a lasting impact on the four traditional pillars of entertainment: movies, television, theatre, and music.

However, her career didn’t begin with Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning musical, but as a six-year-old girl living in New York City with her mom.

Rita – born in Puerto Rico – began dancing at that tender, youthful age, and in director Mariem Perez Riera’s “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”, she grooves some serious moves during her 87th birthday celebration at her Berkeley, Calif. home. 

Although, this documentary is not all smiles and partying.  Indeed, life is not, and neither is Rita’s, as this film offers frank – sometimes joyous, sometimes woeful – tales of an extraordinary human being who is still in front of cameras and microphones to this day.  According to IMDb, Ms. Moreno has 160 credits from 1950 (“So Young So Bad”) to 2021 (Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake), so do the math.  That’s 70-plus years, folks!

Courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

Riera finds plenty of familiar friends to tell Rita’s story.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Chakiris, Hector Elizondo, Norman Lear (who was in his late 90s during his interview), Whoopi Goldberg, and many more – including her daughter Fernanda Luisa Gordon – rightfully gush over Rita’s influence. 

“She made me feel like women could do anything because she did.  She was a Latina, like me,” Gloria Estefan says.

Eva Longoria shares that she enjoyed Rita’s work from the PBS kids show “The Electric Company” (1971 – 2009) and appreciated that Ms. Moreno looked like her too.  (As a side note, since I’m also a child of the 70s, I grew up rejoicing over that same program, and my brothers and I frequently yelled just like Rita’s character Millie, “Hey, You Guys!!!!”)

Moreno also sits down for extensive, in-depth recollections, and along with the aforementioned stars, the film mixes – as we would hope and expect – plenty of B-roll from Rita’s career.  While many clips tender good feelings about her work, not all of them do.  Not by a long shot.  Rita and others recall the struggles that she faced, the power disparity between Hollywood bigwigs and a newcomer, during her early acting days.  Producers and directors frequently cast her as Native American or Island women, and her characters were often portrayed as “illiterate or immoral.”

Portrait of actress Rita Moreno. (Photo by Loomis Dean//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Sure, she worked in films during her 20s.  Who wouldn’t love those opportunities?  Still, the industry marginalized Rita and her on-screen roles.  Rita, in turn, developed and mastered a “universal accent” that she applied to any character from any background, race, or country of origin.  Visually, the most disturbing moments are the countless clips of Moreno with muddy “brownface” makeup caked on her face.  Yes, this includes her turn as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), and if you haven’t seen the film in a while, the makeup on several actors – including Chakiris – are terrible distractions.

The documentary purposely and surprisingly opens Rita’s dark emotional places.  She was on the receiving end of verbal slights, visceral disrespect, and much worse.  In Rita’s own words – including a specific four-letter one – she recalls these moments with sorrow and disgust. 

Those following her work for decades are likely aware of these episodes, but perhaps not.  After absorbing this 90-minute documentary, Rita’s new fans will learn about the woman’s personal life – including her long relationship with an actor who is well-known for a memorable Oscar acceptance speech too – and her extensive screen, stage, and singing vocations. 

Did you know that she starred in the HBO series “Oz” (1997 – 2003)?  I didn’t, but that scratches the surface on her accomplishments and jaw-dropping collection of awards. 

Yes, Rita Moreno won the EGOT!  If you’re not familiar with the term, this film explains it, but I did some research. Ms. Moreno actually won the PEGOT! 

The “P” is for the Peabody Award that she won in 2019, and actress Diane Guerrero explains – on the BESE YouTube Channel – that “only three people have ever accomplished this.  Rita Moreno is one of them.” 

Wow, right?

For her keen supporters – who already know-it-all – “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” – a standard documentary, structure-wise – is a more-than-worthy celluloid account, because Rita herself speaks to her troubles, insecurities, triumphs, and successes in delicate, close quarters. 

She doesn’t seem concerned about pleasing the masses, and her honest talk is unquestionably appreciated.  After the film ends, you’ll be grateful that she immigrated to America as a five-year-old.  Sure, Rita didn’t have any say in that particular matter, but that decision helped define her because she grew into a person “who decided to go for it” throughout her almost 90 years on Planet Earth, and in 2021, she still enjoys finding that open spot on the dance floor.  

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Roadside Attractions, Sundance Institute

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