The documentary, which played at Sundance last year, opens theatrically this week
Multifaceted performer Rita Moreno has been entertaining for more than 75 years, starting with a preadolescent dancing career that led to her being cast in her first films. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It provides a spotlight for the legendary Latina actress who had to find her way amidst sexual harassment in a racist studio system and dozens of brownface roles as island girls and natives to get to a point where she could be cast as Anita in MGM’s West Side Story.
This documentary provides Moreno an opportunity to recall past traumas and how a lack of self-worth in her younger years led to certain decision making. “I thought so little of myself,” she says, as she admits she kept working with her agent even after he raped her. I haven’t read her memoir, so there were several bombshells like this that Moreno drops during the documentary which left this viewer stunned. Director Mariem Pérez Riera interviews friends, family, academics and several Latinx performers influenced by the amazing expanse of her career. The historical context provided by a few of the interviewees grounds the film.
We are shown scenes of modern-day Moreno prepping on the set for One Day at a Time, watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford as she does so. The Senate hearing testimony serves as a kind of parallel for Moreno’s own lifetime experience. Besides the careful thought behind this storytelling choice, the format of the documentary tends to adhere too strongly to a timeline. This makes Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It less remarkable than it could have been, and more pedestrian in form.
Which is not to diminish the impact of seeing a frank Moreno speak with love for the family and the home she left behind in Puerto Rico to move as a child with her mom to New York, or hearing her consider her younger tendencies towards relationships with controlling men, or the marvel of glimpsing her on the set of the upcoming film adaptation of West Side Story. It’s slightly disappointing that the documentary isn’t quite as original in style as the star at its center, but Ms. Moreno really is one of a kind.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It opens in theaters Fri, June 18 (and will eventually air on PBS, as WNET helped produce it).