RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT (Sundance 2021) -Review by Pam Grady

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Plenty of people show up to bear witness to the greatness of singer-dancer-actor Rita Moreno in Mariam Pérez Riera’s engaging documentary. The range stretches from former costars like her fellow West Side Story Oscar winner George Chakiris and her The Electric Company scene partner to contemporary admirer Lin-Manual Miranda to her daughter, Fernanda Gordon Fisher. But it is Moreno’s own testimony that makes this film as lively at is. Closing in on 90, still working, and looking back over her life with a disarming frankness, her vivacious voice as she recalls her life and singular career animates the documentary.

Riera endeavors to build a portrait of the artist that is all-encompassing. So, there is plenty of biographical detail, beginning with her childhood in Puerto Rico before her mother relocated the two of them to New York. There is her troubled relationship with Marlon Brando and her long marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon. There is her life today, split between her home in the San Francisco Bay Area and wherever her work takes her.

The rest of the documentary is given to that work – begun before she was even a teenager. The clips alone make the documentary a worthwhile endeavor: her small role as a big star in Singin’ in the Rain, inhabiting the role of Anita in her Oscar-winning turn in West Side Story, reliving the psychodrama – however fictionally – of the relationship with Brando in The Night of the Following Day, cutting it up on the set of The Electric Company, reprising her Tony-winning role of a flamboyantly untalented nightclub performer in The Ritz, playing a no-nonsense nun on the gritty prison drama Oz, and most recently, in a starring role as the grandmother on the TV series One Day At a Time. Moreno is an EGOT – the winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, and these clips offer a glimpse to the uninitiated of the enormous talent to led to all those honors.

The most revealing and enraging part of the documentary is the one that reveals Hollywood’s ignorance, racism, and, for a place known as the “dream factory,” its utter lack of imagination. That Moreno’s career developed the way that it did and grew as large as it is can be chalked up, in many ways to sheer tenacity. In the early days of her career, tied to a studio contract, she suffered through the indignity of playing one stereotyped, “exotic” character after another. Then after West Side Story, she received gang script after gang script. Moreno dug in her heels and stayed off the big screen for years, her insistence on defining the terms of her career eventually paying big dividends.

Rita Morena: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is a fabulous exploration of a personality both down-to-earth and larger-than-life. As a film, it never wears out its welcome but leaves us wishing we had more time to spend with this wonderful woman and wonder what she will be up to next. On Rita Moreno, 90 might just be the new 60.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.