In the midst of preparing for her 87th birthday party, Rita Moreno insists she’s not a star. In a way, she’s absolutely correct. One of the rare recipients of the famed EGOT — an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award — and the first Puerto Rican actress to win an Academy Award, Moreno’s 70-year-long career is one defined by supporting roles rather than leading ones. Sure, she’ll always be remembered for West Side Story (1961), the film that put the O in her EGOT, but could moviegoers list her other roles, as they no doubt could for fellow EGOTers Audrey Hepburn and Barbra Streisand? The answer is probably not, and Moreno is well aware of this. She’s not bitter, though. Not in the slightest. It’s part of what makes her so endearing: She’s mastered stage, soundtrack, and screens both small and silver, but she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s nothing more than a girl who got a lucky break. Truthfully, luck has nothing to do with it — Moreno is a one-of-a-kind talent who was treated like a run-of-the-mill performer. The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It marks the first step in rehabilitating her legacy.
Composed of equal parts archival footage of Moreno’s seven-decade career, talking head-style interviews with Moreno and the actors and directors who know her best, and a behind-the-scenes look at present-day Moreno during her stint on One Day at a Time (2017-20), Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It does all it can to deliver a complete biography of the actress’ life and work in her own voice. Now on the brink of 90 years old, Moreno is headed for a full circle of sorts with Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story (coincidentally slated to open on the eve of her 90th birthday), but there’s an enormous amount of history that precedes this latest role. Director Mariem Pérez Riera — in her first English-language documentary feature — occasionally takes an unabashedly hagiographic approach, sometimes refusing to bring objectivity to the story of a woman who has already faced an immense amount of criticism in her lifetime. That’s not to say that a critical eye is completely absent, however — although much of the documentary finds little that is worthy of criticism, Riera includes a remarkably nuanced view on some of Moreno’s more problematic roles.
Moreno blatantly admits that finding respectable roles as a Puerto Rican actress in the 1950s and ’60s was not an easy task. Much of what she did on-screen at the time — even in her most famous role as Anita in West Side Story — relied heavily on stereotypical, degrading, or outright discriminatory characterization. This led to a rough internal conflict for Moreno: What’s worse — perpetuating the lack of representation for Latinas in Hollywood or taking the job that requires her to put on brownface and speak in an unintelligible ethnic accent? It’s not unlike the conversations surrounding Hattie McDaniel’s role in Gone with the Wind (1939) or the character of Apu on The Simpsons (1989- ) — Is representation truly representation if it’s doing both harm and good? Moreno is still conflicted to this day, and it’s been six or seven decades since she’s even played some of these parts. Although Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It doesn’t answer the tough questions it raises, it’s enough just to ask them. The inquiry alone is incredibly thought-provoking.
In spite of the question mark that looms over these troublesome parts for Moreno, the one feeling that emanates off the screen is a palpable sense of pride in her own Hollywood history and how it has shaped her identity as a Latina in America. For many young Latin Americans, Moreno was the first person to appear in a film or on a television show who actually looked like they did. The film was commissioned by PBS for its American Masters (1986- ) series, and it would have been quite easy for Riera to turn in a pleasant yet toothless puff piece on Moreno. Instead, she provides her subject with ample room to touch on the parts of her stardom that aren’t nearly as glamorous: the sexual violence she faced as a young starlet in Los Angeles, often at the hands of studio heads and talent agents; the treacherous relationship she had with infamously difficult actor Marlon Brando; the prejudice she experienced on set. Although she’s received a plethora of awards that prove her talent as a performer, Moreno has also experienced an unthinkable amount of hardship since arriving in the United States in 1936. Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It finds value in the good and the bad alike.
In the current day, much about Moreno’s life throughout the 20th century remains the same. She’s still an outspoken activist— one particularly revelatory scene shows her flinging swear words at the news as though the politicians might be able to hear her — and she continues to land supporting role after supporting role without much complaint. She’s just happy to have work and to do what she loves, which is playing a role that has weight (no matter how small). The difference between her and the average B player is the wisdom, and Riera makes sure the viewer knows it. Where some may demonstrate anger or frustration at the lack of recognition in the form of leading parts, Moreno shows appreciation for what she has been given over the years. Instead of jealousy lobbed at the ones who were top-billed, Moreno has pride in the fact that she just gets to show up in the first place. She felt the same way watching Gene Kelly film his iconic titular scene in Singin’ In the Rain (1952), and she feels the same way now, simply being able to participate in Spielberg’s retelling of the film that has defined her, for better and for worse, for 60 years now. What an extraordinary attitude to have.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It opens theatrically on June 18, 2021.