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

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It
"Riera may not be breaking new ground with her techniques but she takes us for a breezy and enjoyable canter over the expected jumps." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute/photo by Getty Images

Documentary subjects don’t come much more peppy than Rita Moreno, who despite declaring in the opening minutes that “you can tell I’m not a real star because someone else would be doing this” as she busily unwraps cutlery, has the sort of charisma that money can’t buy.

In addition to being funny and sharp as a tack, at 87, when the film was shot, she’s not only incredibly open about her life and experiences, good and bad, but also has a talent for relating these stories with witty and engaging charm.

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Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, as part of the ever-reliable American Masters series for PBS, that also includes the likes of Oliver Sacks: His Own Life and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the filmmaker knows a good subject when she sees it and wisely allows Moreno to stay in the spotlight. It’s a place that the Puerto Rico-born star makes no secret of wanting to be from childhood and the clips that pop up between interviews with her and those she has influenced, demonstrate her natural urge to perform – as she dances up to receive awards or boogies with the band on chat shows.

Riera may not be breaking new ground with her techniques but she takes us for a breezy and enjoyable canter over the expected jumps, as Morena recalls moving to New York as a child as being like a “reverse Oz”, swapping the heat and colour for grey and cold. Once Moreno embarked on a stage career – beginning by dancing in a Greenwich Village night club at the age of six – she explains how she caught the performing bug. As with most people, her career is a mixture of bloody hard work and a sprinkling of luck – something she ruminates on as she recalls meeting Louis B Meyer and getting a contract. Initially, she found herself pigeon-holed in “island girl” roles, which was a discrimination faced by many Hispanic stars that talking heads, including Héctor Elizondo, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Gloria Estefan expand upon. It’s shocking now to think how little receiving an Academy Award for West Side Story, boosted her career thanks to deep-rooted discrimination, although her success made her a role model for many who came after her, including Eva Longoria.

The film also touches on the way that female studio stars were used as “arm candy” for men in the business, sent on ‘dates’ – an objectification that leads Moreno to talk about darker moments of her life, including rape by an agent, “Here’s what’s terrible,” she says, “I still let him be my agent.” While the film doesn’t linger on the darker subject matter, it doesn’t shy away from it either, with Moreno also talking about her turbulent romance with Marlon Brando and a suicide attempt.

At the time of writing, Moreno is 89 and has taken her career full circle with a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story but she gives the impression she’s going to be going for it – and achieving whatever it is she’s aiming at – for a long time yet.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2021
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Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It packshot
Profile of the West Side Story star.

Festivals:

Sundance 2021

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