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Original caricature by Jeff York of Rita Moreno (playing a character in “The Electric Company”) in the documentary RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT (copyright 2021)

Rita Moreno’s fascinating life of 89 years has been so full of work, acclaim, love, barrier-breaking, and longevity, it probably deserves a limited series more than a documentary. Still, if you’re going to do a documentary on the legendary actress, RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT manages to do an excellent job in a scant 90 minutes. It gives us insight into her career, her personal life, and some delicious Hollywood tea being poured by the woman herself. It’s a hoot and a holler, but it’s also one woman’s cautionary tale about the sexism and racism that curdles through Tinsel Town.

The film opens today in theaters and hits all the high notes of Moreno’s storied career. Featured prominently are her early roles in musicals like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE KING & I, her Oscar-winning turn in WEST SIDE STORY, and the edgier roles she’s played in the last few decades as she aged spectacularly well into her 70s and 80s. (Frankly, she doesn’t look a day over 65.) Amongst her vaulted work of the last few decades is her straight turn as a nun counseling prisoners in HBO’s drama OZ and the remake of ONE DAY AT A TIME on Netflix.

Moreno tells about all of those acting experiences in great detail, detailing specific aspects of each production, as well as the politics of getting the roles. She faced many issues in her career: typecasting, exclusion, being treated as “exotic,” but Moreno kept her chin up and kept at it.  She has a memory like a steel trap and shares her experiences here. Some stories are hilarious, others absolutely harrowing.

Her vast resume is such that the doc cannot possibly cover it all as adequately as one wishes it could. The film leaves out significant chunks of her work and short shrifts important periods like her time on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY in the 1970s. The six years she contributed to the PBS program get only a few minutes here, and it’s a shame as it was significant work. The wide variety of roles she played during her run on the program were in many ways akin to being in repertoire theater. 

What the film here gets wholly right is letting the woman speak for herself. Moreno’s own words shape every event, every part of the film. She shares incredibly intimate secrets and delights in spilling some of the best tea this side of any gossip show on E! Moreno describes a lot of her personal life, both the triumphs and tragedies and is never less than forthcoming.  She speaks directly to the camera most of the time as if she’s sharing with a good friend. (Lucky us.)

The most interesting part of the documentary is when Moreno talks about her eight-year on-again/off-again relationship with Marlon Brando. Theirs is a cautionary tale about obsession, ego, and the dangers of mixing work and pleasure. The details she spills are jaw-droppers, yet she serves up each beat with clear eyes and a steady voice.

Moreno’s story is also an immigrant’s one, not to mention a feminist’s. It’s a dissertation on career reinvention as well, one that recently has had to fight ageism. Occasionally, Moreno can come off a touch scathing, even self-pitying. She laments not being a big enough star to have someone else organize her 87th birthday party as the film opens. But she should be allowed some anger at how Hollywood didn’t give her as big a career as she deserved. Nonetheless, her talent, range of roles, and longevity have won her the fabled EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) and she was awarded lifetime achievement awards by SAG and the Kennedy Center Honors. 

Mostly, what comes through in the film, is Moreno’s pluck and courage throughout her almost 9 decades. She embraced her Latino heritage in Hollywood even when big stars like Rita Hayworth hid theirs. Moreno also stood up to agents, scoundrels, and plenty of dismissive directors. Her wry sense of humor got her through a lot when she was eight or 80. One of her best stories in the film concerns her coming to America as a young immigrant from Puerto Rico. She saw the Statue of Liberty and thought it was an elegant woman holding a big ice cream cone. Delightful!

The documentary’s director Mariem Perez Riera also gets great anecdotes from a vast array of celebrities who’ve worked with Moreno. Norman Lear talks about her comedy talents and fighting for Latino voices. Everyone from Hector Elizondo to Eva Longoria to Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses how Moreno helped open doors for them. And various costars like George Chakiris, Morgan Freeman,  and B.D. Wong talk about her professionalism, enthusiasm, and teamwork on set and off.

Today, Moreno isn’t slowing down at all. She’s been outspoken just this week about some controversy surrounding African-American representation in the new movie musical IN THE HEIGHTS, and she is an executive producer of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY due at Christmas. (She’s also starring in it.) That film will likely be quite a gift to cinemagoers this December. As is this one, in theaters right now. 

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