NOW IN THEATERS! Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a feel-good documentary about a life well lived that is worth the time to watch. Mariem Pérez Riera’s rapturous movie follows Rita Moreno, icon of the stage, screen, and television, from her humble beginnings in Puerto Rico to her lifetime achievement award in July of 2018 at the Television Critics Association, infusing the same wit, candor, and vivaciousness that its subject is known for.
The film begins at Moreno’s home in Berkley, CA. She is prepping her Cuban-themed 87th birthday party by unwrapping knives and forks in her kitchen with her daughter, Fernanda. Moreno makes a flippant remark to the cameras to the effect that real stars have people doing this for them. Director Riera then smash cuts to a mantle with an Oscar flanked by two Emmys. The actress brings it back, stating that the key to her success in show business was to never believe in her own hype, so to speak. Well, if humility dictated success, Moreno has it in spades. As the first Latina and only the third person to ever achieve an E.G.O.T., not believing in her own hype has kept Moreno humble yet wildly successful.
“…the first Latina and only the third person to ever achieve an E.G.O.T.…”
Mind you, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a documentary after all, and so we do have to go down the biographical path—starting with how Moreno grew up in Puerto Rico and then showing that she and her mother moved to a “better” life in New York City. It wasn’t long before Moreno left school at the age of 15 to work in nightclubs as a performer, eventually being able to support her family. The big break came when the head of MGM was in town, and a meeting was arranged. “It’s so weird,” Moreno recalls, “You work your a*s off, and suddenly it’s about who you know.”
She is then whisked off to Hollywood and made a contract play for a list of studios. Looking around, she saw no one like her in the industry, with her closest role model being Rita Hayworth. In a rather shocking and personal moment, Moreno recalls one of her first Hollywood parties where the Mexican servants helped her escape the lecherous hands of the powerful studio heads in attendance. There is some frank discussion about “the business.” But what is more rewarding is the honesty that the actress offers. These things happened, but more haunting to her is how she valued herself at the time.
Did you know Rita Moreno was an activist? Did you know she dated Marlon Brando? Did you know that she attempted suicide because of her break-up with Brando, then seven years later starred in a movie with him? Yeah, me either. Circling back, though, Moreno has few regrets yet is happier than she has ever been. I think what sets Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It apart from other end-of-life docs is that this one is just so honest, so forthcoming, and so remarkably detailed. Mariem Pérez Riera has perfectly captured an American icon at the moment we need her the most.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
"…perfectly captured an American icon at the moment we need her the most."