The Hollywood icon examines her challenges and career in documentary
By Diana Beechener
In a Hollywood biopic, Rita Moreno’s life is the perfect example of the American Dream. A little girl moves from Puerto Rico to New York, finds fame as a dancer, and moves to Hollywood. Over a seven-decade career, Moreno earned the coveted EGOT (that’s an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) and inspired generations of Latinx people with her talents.
But life isn’t a movie, and Moreno is here to tell you becoming a legend is a lot harder than Hollywood would have you believe.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a frank look at Moreno’s life and career. While many biographical documentaries gloss over the less desirable aspects of a subject’s life (especially if the subject is being interviewed for the film), this documentary leans into a lot of the uglier aspects of Moreno’s career.
She speaks candidly of her race, and how MGM studio executives refused to cast her as anything but what she called “the dusky maiden”. She spent decades pretending to be everything from Thai to Native American to Russian, and every Latin race in the book. The roles were all overly sexualized, hysterical women that Moreno found insulting and boring. She was constantly asked to be “more spicy” playing to ethnic stereotypes that littered cinema. She found the work demoralizing, but it was the only work she could find.
When Moreno won an Oscar for her role in West Side Story, she thought she’d finally moved past her race and would have the chance to take starring roles. But studios only wanted her to play stereotypes, leading to a seven-year gap in her filmography. Ever the survivor, Moreno decided to take her talents to TV and the stage, finding a successful career doing work that made her proud.
Moreno also discusses the horrific sexism she and fellow actresses faced. The documentary pairs her experiences with her current activism – Moreno has been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood and was an active part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even when she’s on set, we see her keeping politically active, running to her dressing room to watch the Kavanaugh hearings or making time to visit with her congresswoman.
She’s still making headlines. Recently, she got some flack for an opinion on colorism in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights. But she’s never been afraid of making waves and growing. The film frames Moreno’s coming into her own as part of her activism. Though the studio system would only let her play cliches, she finally found a voice by speaking out for women’s rights and injustices she saw around her.
While the documentary gives an interesting and often candid look at Moreno’s life, there are many unanswered questions. For every story about her affair with Marlon Brando and her marriage, there are others that are glossed over. The film also relies on academics, actors, and producers to speak of Moreno’s influence and experiences. It’s a great look at how she became an icon for the Latinix community and an example of career longevity for all.
Moreno’s road to icon status has been a bumpy one, but her star power is undeniable. The best parts of the documentary are her interviews to camera. She’s funny, frank, and incredibly charismatic. Once called “a Spanish Liz Taylor” by Louis B. Mayer, it’s easy to see how her star quality kept her a vital and fascinating presence over her long career. Even without makeup and getting breakfast at a craft services table, she’s the most interesting person in the room.
If you’re already a fan of Moreno, this film will surely cement her as a legend in your mind. If you’ve never heard of Moreno, this documentary is a stirring look at a tough, talented woman who grabbed success from an industry that often consumes and discards hopefuls with dreams of stardom. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It will make you curious to find out more—a good place to start is with her brilliant work in Oz, The Muppet Show, or One Day at a Time, which are available to stream on HBOMax, Disney+, and Netflix respectively.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is in theaters and will be available on demand in a few weeks.
Good Documentary * PG-13 * 90 mins.