Whatever you think you know about Rita Moreno, you barely know the half of it. A lively and illuminating new documentary about the incomparable actress, singer, and dancer proves that no matter how hard any person or industry tries to pigeonhole Rita Moreno, she will surprise at every skirt-flipping turn. The Puerto Rican-American icon may forever be remembered as Anita in “West Side Story,” for which she became the first Latina to win an Oscar, but “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” reveals much more about her mind-blowing seven-decade career in show business. And from her beginnings in the studio system as a teenager to breaking barriers as a woman of color in Hollywood — it was no cakewalk.
At a breezy but jam-packed 89 minutes, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows Moreno’s life chronologically, and if some chapters feel brief it’s only because of a wealth of material. From a minor yet significant speaking role in “Singin’ in the Rain” to her iconic “Hey you guys!” catchphrase in “The Electric Company” to a later resurgence as a ballsy nun in HBO’s groundbreaking “Oz,” the sheer number of eras and corners of the industry in which Moreno pops up is remarkable.
But this charming documentary is more than an IMDb-scroll come to life, avoiding the usual pitfalls of generic biopics thanks in no small part to Moreno’s surprising candor and vulnerability. From dealings with racism and misogyny to her volatile 7-year relationship with Marlon Brando to her refreshing takes on fame and marriage, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” pays proper homage to this national treasure by telling it like it is — just as she does.
Born to poor farmers in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Moreno immigrated to New York City with her mother when she was just five years old. Her seamstress mother made all her costumes and liked to dress her up like her little doll, and this perfect metaphor for a child performer’s arrested development would stay with her long into adulthood. She got her first break after meeting Louis B. Mayer in his penthouse at the Waldorf Astoria, the first time she or her mother had ever been inside a hotel. Mayer dubbed her a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” (just the look she was going for) and signed Moreno to MGM. She and her mother moved to Culver City, California, within walking distance of the studio because she couldn’t drive.
Thus began a string of supporting roles as every ethnic stereotype popular in 1950s Hollywood: Native American, Asian, Mexican, Russian, Hungarian — Moreno did it all. During a funny moment, Eva Longoria re-enacts a Moreno bit about using “the universal ethnic accent” for every audition. Moreno donned yellowface in “The King and I” and brownface as too many shrinking island flowers to count, always spurned and sometimes left for dead by white cowboy heroes. It wasn’t until “West Side Story” in 1961 that Moreno was finally given a three-dimensional Latina character, a landmark portrayal that was nonetheless read by some Puerto Ricans as denigrating to the island. (Moreno demanded changes to some of the more disparaging “America” lyrics. Smoke on your pipe and put that in, Mr. Sondheim.)
The film does not gloss over the unseemly parts of show business for a woman of color, and Moreno has no shortage of anecdotes that might have been shocking before MeToo, but are no less horrifying for their familiarity. From a predatory agent to a botched underground abortion, it’s a miracle Moreno survived much less thrived against all odds. In addition to her immense talent and undeniable charisma, she deserves respect as a battle hardened champion over Hollywood’s darkest truths.
One of the most striking revelations in “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is the film’s gentle insistence that we imagine what Moreno could have achieved were it not for the many roadblocks put in her way. Director Mariem Pérez Riera wisely resists the urge to romanticize Moreno’s struggles and thus flatten her life story into an unequivocal triumph, though she certainly came out on top.
Big name interview subjects Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, and Justina Machado add keen and colorful commentary, but it’s Puerto Rican scholar and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner who pushes back on the idea that Moreno is the ultimate embodiment of the American dream. In the film’s conclusion, she asks the toughest question: “How far could she have gone if she hadn’t had those limits?” We may never know, but for a girl who decided to go for it, she did alright.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.