Entertainer. EGOT winner. Activist. Role model. Legend. All of these words and more can be applied to Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican performer who rose to fame in the waning years of the Hollywood studio system and continues to work consistently in film and television today. Her life and career, including her struggles to overcome the racism and sexism built into the film industry, are explored in a very personal new documentary from director Mariem Pérez Riera titled “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.
The film feels so personal because of Rita’s heavy involvement. She tells her own story; for much of the film, she is seated in her home, filmed in close up as she speaks directly into the camera, directly to us. She talks about her mother leaving the rest of their family behind in Puerto Rico to bring her to America for “a better life” (Rita puts air quotes around the latter phrase). Living in New York City, she took dance lessons and performed to earn a living for herself and her mother, until a talent scout led her to Louis B. Mayer and an MGM contract that brought her to Hollywood. But to achieve success in the film industry, Rita had to become something she wasn’t. As a Latina, she was cast in a wide variety of ethnic roles not authentic to her true heritage, from native girls doused in mud-colored makeup, to the Burmese slave girl Tuptim in the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I.” All of them forced Rita to don a nondescript accent and speak in broken English, and few of them contained any substance, until she was cast as the Puerto Rican Anita in the 1961 musical “West Side Story,” for which she won an Oscar.
Rita speaks in depth about this first period in her career, as well as her activism for civil rights and women’s rights. It’s evident from the opening of the film, which sees Rita gleefully planning her 88th birthday party, that she has a big and bright personality, but she is candid about some very somber subjects too. She talks about the derogatory way she was treated in Hollywood by powerful men like Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, how she was raped by her agent but continued to work with him because he was the only person helping her with her career at the time, the botched abortion she received during her years long affair with actor Marlon Brando, how she attempted suicide in the early 60s because she didn’t feel like she deserved to live, and how her long marriage to husband Leonard Gordon was in some ways a charade, and his controlling tendencies stifled her. Some of these subjects that feel quite significant are only very briefly touched on (the attempted suicide, for one). The film also feels a bit more jumbled once it gets past “West Side Story,” but it does manage to touch on all of Rita’s major life and career events, right up to her recent role on the acclaimed sitcom “One Day at a Time,” and her cameo in director Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of “West Side Story.”
While Rita herself does most of the talking, the film also assembles a wide variety of talking heads to talk about Rita. These include everyone from her daughter Fernanda Luisa Gordon to costars like Morgan Freeman (who worked with Rita on the 1970s children’s television series “The Electric Company”) and George Chakiris (Bernado in “West Side Story”), writer and producer Norman Lear, and contemporaries like Mitzi Gaynor and Whoopi Goldberg. There are also a plethora of Latina performers on hand to discuss their admiration of Rita and the ways in which she paved the way for their success in the industry, including Eva Longoria, Karen Olivo, and Gloria Esteban, while Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the film’s producers, also makes an appearance. It’s a lot of voices, to be sure, but combined they make you realize—if you haven’t already—just what a huge impact Rita had. At a time when few Latinas were seen on screen, let alone allowed to be themselves, she showed the next generation of performers that there was a place for them.
It’s also important to note that the film has a Puerto Rican woman telling a Puerto Rican woman’s story, and Riera does an exceptional job directing. The little moments where Rita is putting on her makeup and deciding what to wear to a function, or facetiming with her grandson, are beautiful, intimate peeks into her life and personality. A really moving part of the film comes early on, as we follow Rita leaving for work on the set of “One Day at a Time.” Footage of her driving on the Sony lot and entering her dressing room are cut between old footage of the MGM lot where she first got her start. In a voiceover, we hear Rita talk about how in the early days she’d be on the lot every day, and no one was nice to her; she’d say hello and people would look the other way. Now, she is greeted warmly by her peers on the very same lot. Riera also connects Rita discussing the sexism she experienced and the struggles of being a woman in Hollywood in the 1950s with footage of Rita watching the Brett Kavanaugh trial unfold on the news and clips of the recent women’s marches and the Me Too movement. There’s clearly a lot of trust between Rita and Riera and the rest of the production team, and it shows in the intimate moments we get to share with her.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is a moving tribute to a trailblazer and a living legend. By the end of the movie, it’s apparent why so many people appeared on camera for this film to lavish praise on her and discuss her career. Rita Moreno is smart, funny, talented, and immediately endearing, and despite all the obstacles thrown at her, she ultimately succeeded in so many different fields by being herself.
Runtime: 90 minutes.