I had the honor of interviewing Rita Moreno a few years ago. I use the word “honor,” because speaking with Moreno transcended the usual interview exchange and left me reeling with joy. Beyond having great stories to tell, she came off as one of the nicest people with whom I’ve ever chatted. Words can’t really describe how cool she is.
However, a good documentary can—and Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It does so in a big, soul-enriching, entertaining way. The EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) participates enthusiastically in the doc, which covers the many years and expansive experiences of her storied career.
Director Mariem Perez Riera gathers a host of entertainers to celebrate Moreno’s legendary, trailblazing career. The roster includes Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, George Chakiris (Nardo from West Side Story), Norman Lear and fellow EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg. Morgan Freeman—Easy Reader from the eternally awesome The Electric Company, on which was Moreno featured prominently—also offers his opinions on the wonders of Rita.
With access to a treasure trove of film clips and archival pics, Riera is able to tell the whole story, leading up to the present. The present is handled by plenty of new time with Moreno. Moreno is such a charmer that simply watching her cook breakfast or apply makeup is a mesmerizing experience.
She tells it all, from the very beginning, including her first glimpse of New York as her 5-year-old self emigrated from Puerto Rico; she thought the Statue of Liberty was the president of the United States holding a gigantic ice cream cone. Her career got its true start after meeting MGM boss Louis B. Mayer—with her mom, in his hotel room. Mayer instantly signed Moreno after observing that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,” and she was off to the races.
One of the great pleasures of the film is that it gathers some of her awards-acceptance speeches, including her adorably short, enthusiastic “thank you” for her Oscar. (I’m thinking she and Joe Pesci may be tied for Oscar-speech brevity.) It also contains her Tony acceptance speech, where she allowed herself to go a little crazy. Seeing all of these accomplishments in one sitting blasts home the notion that Moreno is the very embodiment of the word “icon.”
There is a lot of pain mixed with the glory, and Moreno doesn’t shy away from the misogyny, racism and sexual abuse that plagued her career—and the careers of many others who came before and after her. She spent many years being typecast in one-dimensional supporting roles, even after getting her Oscar for West Side Story.
It was her desire to reinvent herself after that Oscar that eventually led to a significant career in TV, including her central role in The Electric Company, and her Emmy-winning appearance on The Rockford Files. More recent chapters of her career include her starring in the prison drama Oz, and her role in the remake of One Day at a Time. Moreno shares stories on all of these roles—and your various streaming-services queues are may get loaded up with Moreno-centric projects after seeing the doc.
A good portion of the film is devoted to Moreno’s time with notorious boyfriend Marlon Brando, including the very good—and the very, very bad. While the film isn’t a crucifixion of Brando—Moreno reflects on some of the positives of his presence—he certainly comes across as a big zero. He didn’t deserve her.
You’ll see Moreno again later this year in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, a remake in which the Puerto Rican roles are actually played by Puerto Rican performers this time. The original is one of my favorite films, but I’m game for a new take—and so is the luminous Moreno. I can’t wait to see her in action again.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City); Regal Rancho Mirage and IMAX (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert).