Early on in the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, viewers see Rita and a friend preparing for her 87th birthday party. She’s setting up the decorations and plastic cutlery and talking to the documentarian. Within minutes, anyone who appreciates straight-shooting broads, never mind uber-talented IGOT-winning Latinas, will be completely in love. Moreno surrounds herself not only with great friends, but people who tell her the truth. Clearly she’s someone who doesn’t want spin and sycophancy to be the order of the day, and it’s no wonder. She’s been in show business for over 70 years, navigating and surviving pre-#MeToo Hollywood, and she has the scars and stories to prove it.
During the 90 minute running time, Rita speaks about some of the challenges of being one of the only women of color working in Hollywood, and reveals the pervasive racist, sexist attitude of the men who hired her. She went to an industry party when was still an innocent ingenue, and the head of Columbia Pictures leaned in and told her “you know I’d like to f*ck you”, and another liquored-up lech in the biz said, “you’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” She went outside, where the Mexican gardeners found a way to get her home safely. The stories get worse, but they by no means drag the film into maudlin territory, because with even the darkest tales, Rita approaches them with a sense of humor, a lot of insight, and complete honesty. The dark is balanced with the light, too. You’ll see scenes where the energetic 80-something flirts with production interns and dances to lively Brazilian music.
Rita, who is the best example of the ignorance of ageism, is endlessly fascinating as a subject. She was at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963, but she was also at the 2017 Women’s March. Want to know why she is staunchly pro-choice or why she is such a passionate activist? This documentary will tell you, and unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Rita’s life, the answers will surprise you. There is really no one like her in terms of being a woman, a Latina, who has worked on Broadway, in some of the most classic Hollywood movies, and on some of the best shows on tv, and is open about the best and the worst parts of the experience. She’s been through the ringer and still finds a way to choose joy, and in that way she is a role model to all.
In her director’s statement, Puerto Rican filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera said that in her very first interview with Rita Moreno, she saw herself reflected in the performer’s answers, and determined to show how inspirational Rita is, in all her aspects of her life. For that reason Riera filmed in verité style, showing her in her daily life, unguarded, which explains how the director so completely captured her fragile side. Riera also chose locations specific to Rita’s life in which to conduct interviews with her friends and colleagues, including West Side Story co-star George Chakiris, Electric Company co-star Morgan Freeman, One Day at a Time producer Norman Lear, and friend and executive producer of the documentary Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others. The score, created by Kathryn Bostic, is a great blend of jaunty jazz, latin rhythms, and piano pieces that compliment both Rita’s personality and the relative lightness or intensity of her stories.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It was nominated for Sundance 2021’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize. It is both an indictment of the continued inequities in Hollywood and a tribute to a powerhouse performer who just decided to go for it and won, despite the odds.
4 out of 5 stars.