A new documentary on Rita Moreno offers few fresh insights on the Puerto Rican legend’s story

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Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno—the Puerto Rican movie star, dancer, and singer—has been working in showbiz for more than half a century. Over that time, she’s shared plenty of fascinating stories about her life, from relationships with legendary stars like Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando, to winning the attention of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer—and a contract with the studio— by looking like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” during a fateful meeting that kickstarted her film career. The new documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It reiterates many of those anecdotes, but it doesn’t tell us much that Moreno hasn’t divulged already in her 2013 memoir or in countless interviews over the years. Nor does director Mariem Pérez Riera offer an intimate look at Moreno’s daily life, in the way the recent Mucho Mucho Amor closely followed its own subject, fellow Puerto Rican TV legend Walter Mercado.

What we do get is small glimpses into Moreno’s world, like the star treating herself to blintzes on the set of One Day At A Time and FaceTiming with one of her grandsons. The documentary opens with Moreno planning her Cuba-themed 87th-birthday party. “Oh I hate doing this, I really hate this,” she says to the camera, as she sets up decorations with her daughter, Fernanda. “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this.” That joking declaration is quickly disproven by a pan across all the awards she’s won over the years: a Grammy for Best Children’s Album for The Electric Company soundtrack, her still-shiny Best Supporting Actress Oscar for West Side Story, her Tony for Best Featured Actress In A Play for The Ritz. Moreno is the first Latina to nab the full EGOT, and her achievements helped create new opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood. Today, she’s one of the few older women in the industry who secures steady work.

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After dropping into the birthday party, the film promptly rewinds to Moreno’s humble beginnings in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and her mother’s subsequent decision to move them to New York City after her divorce. We see how Moreno’s confidence was shot by the discrimination she faced in her new home, but also how she found self-worth in a passion for dancing, becoming her family’s sole breadwinner by the age of 16 after dropping out of high school. Even once she had a contract with MGM, it wasn’t smooth sailing; Moreno recalls being ignored on set because she was Latina, an early taste of what she’d face over the next decade of her career. The documentary combines illustrations of young Moreno in paper doll form with archival footage. It also covers its wealth of information through the usual pop-doc methods of talking-head interviews—not just with Moreno herself but with a number of other collaborators and actors influenced by her work and accomplishments, including her One Day At A Time costar Justina Machado, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who serves as executive producer), her West Side Story costar George Chakiris, Eva Longoria, Héctor Elizondo, and more.

Structurally speaking, Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It can be clumsy, especially in how it attempts to bridge Moreno’s current life with some of the heavy topics discussed throughout. Included is footage of her watching the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing, which prompts the actress to reflect on how often she was treated as a sex object throughout her career, as when she was propositioned at an afternoon cocktail party by Columbia Pictures cofounder Harry Cohn. But rather than provide Moreno the space to process these harrowing experiences of sexual harassment, the film quickly moves on to other topics, pivoting to Hollywood’s habit of offering her any “ethnic” role available, her body bronzed to look various shades darker. Knowing now that portraying characters who were Asian and Native Americans was problematic, Moreno repeats multiple times that she did not want to play these roles, but felt it was either that or lose her film career. (Her comments this week about the reaction to In The Heights’ accusations of colorism, which she’s since apologized for, seem especially curious in light of her own history of grappling with the industry’s representation problems.) The doc then returns to Ford-Kavanaugh to hastily introduce one of the most sensitive stories Moreno shares: her experience being raped by her agent, and continuing to work with him because he was the only agent available who readily wanted to help her career.

Rita Moreno in Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It
Rita Moreno in Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It

The film takes 45 minutes to get to arguably the biggest moment of Moreno’s career: her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in West Side Story. Again, the approach is glancing and superficial: There’s no discussion of how she landed the role or how she felt playing a Latina in Hollywood’s then-biggest movie about Latinas (created by white men, of course). Moreno instead emphasizes the positive, talking about what she loved about the part and how she pushed for the original lyrics of “America” to be changed. (The song initially spoke of Puerto Rico as an “ugly island, island of tropic diseases.”)

Even after finally beginning to delve into her years of stardom, the doc keeps uncomfortably returning to the recurring topic of her relationship with Brando and the suicide attempt that followed. This is a major through line of the project, yet Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It nonetheless skims over the details, with the mention of Moreno’s pregnancy with Brando’s child and the botched abortion that nearly killed her mostly serving as a segue into her activism. Likewise, the movie doesn’t much elaborate on Moreno’s assertion that the eight-year relationship was a catalyst for her attempted overdose, nor does it broach the dynamic between the two when they reunited seven years later to costar in The Night Of The Following Day. Perhaps Moreno was less comfortable going deep on these topics on camera than she was putting her thoughts about them on paper.

Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It excels in showing how much more there is to Moreno’s life and work than West Side Story; it successfully details how much she had to fight to be respected in Hollywood during a time when it was even tougher than it is now for Latinas to get roles. Yet the film is often unfocused, and—at a highly condensed 89 minutes—it makes only a cursory attempt to uncover aspects of this legend’s story not already included in her memoir. Maybe those interested should just read that instead.

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