“She is a diva, girl, in the best sense of the word.” Justina Machado manages to sum up her co-star, Rita Moreno, in just a few words at the beginning of Moreno’s autobiographical documentary. With the help of director Mariem Perez Riera, the living legend gets to tell her classic Hollywood story on the silver screen, 100% herself. While her Hollywood story echoes many from her time, the fact that she did it all as a woman of color and that her calendar remains booked with work makes her stand out from the rest.
Stylistically, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, doesn’t do anything new. Most of the film is talking head interviews, footage from following Moreno around in her current daily routine, archival film, and some illustrations for her early life. Still, while it may not be breaking ground in its format, Moreno’s natural charisma shines through, having you laughing less than five minutes in.
Moreno is magnetic enough without flashy visuals. She’s quick to point to the value of therapy and it’s clear in the way she talks about her past that she has spent years reflecting and understanding her past. As a young girl, she moved with her mother from Puerto Rico to New York and always knew she wanted to be on the screen. Soon, she was employed as a dancer and the breadwinner for her family, dropping out of school at 15. Soon enough, she was offered a contract at MGM, playing up her looks as a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor”. As expected, she spent many years locked into playing “dusky maidens”, usually Native American, Spanish, or something similar with dark skin and a simple mind. Her self-esteem plummeted as she fell into an endless parade of parts that treated her as a sex object and usually involved her pining over a white man as his devoted side piece.
Outside of these roles, her life wasn’t much better. A victim of sexual assault and treated as less than human by directors, she began an on-and-off relationship with Marlon Brando. With 20/20 hindsight, Moreno can describe the relationship honestly. On the one hand, they truly loved each other and he inspired her to stand up for herself and get involved in the civil rights movement, sparking a lifelong passion. On the other hand, he was emotionally abusive and pushed her self-esteem to an all-time low.
She retells her career with the same critical yet understanding eye. After her breakout role in West Side Story, which won her an Oscar, she struggled to find roles that weren’t Latinas in a gang. Now, she boasts a varied career, from her comedic turns in television shows like The Electric Company, Sesame Street, and One Day at a Time to more serious roles like in The Night of the Following Day and Oz. You can clearly see how proud she is of her career and even a bit confused at her legendary status and lifetime achievement awards.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a film that captures Rita Moreno’s work ethic and staying power. With the wisdom that comes from a long career in Hollywood, Moreno is happy to still be working at 89 years old and happy to be living her life to the fullest every day she can. It’s worth a watch to learn more about this legend who wasn’t always given the spotlight but stole it every chance she could.