Rita Moreno is a legend in the industry. From her early work in Hollywood to her iconic Oscar-winning performance in West Side Story, Moreno’s career remains one of the most unique and diverse of all time. So, of course, a career of this magnitude would ideally deserve their story to be told. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It kicked off my coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, and the bar has been set high as this documentary is not only an insightful look at the icon but, quite frankly, one of the best films of 2021 thus far.
With an actor of Moreno’s stature, a director would have to go out of their way to screw up a documentary about someone as lively and engaging as Moreno. Director Mariem Pérez Riera hits a home run with her direction in painting a picture of Moreno’s career. Riera does a beautiful job of profiling the 89-year-old Hollywood legend by giving Moreno the car keys and letting herself do the majority of the talking.
What works so well with this tactic is Moreno’s openness to talk about a lot of her life. While I was pretty aware of some aspects of her career, it was intriguing to hear her speak about her childhood in Puerto Rico during the Depression and moving with her mother to New York at an early age. Along with stories about her early days in Hollywood, which included her dressing up like Elizabeth Taylor to impress Louis B. Mayer, were all intriguing details to a life well-lived.
Along with her early days in Hollywood, Moreno openly talks about being typecast in “native girl” roles, wearing “make up the color of mud” to play Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Outside of the actual parts, surprise reveals by Moreno included harassment and abuse at the hands of the men who ran Hollywood, including being raped by her agent. These brought the documentary to another level and confirmed that Moreno would not be holding anything back.
In another surprising reveal, Moreno also talks candidly about her relationship with Marlon Brando and how her multi-year relationship with the actor led to attempted suicide. The reveal was quite emotional as Moreno leaned on the importance of finally getting over Brando and the trauma behind their relationship.
In regards to her post-Oscar roles, Moreno revealed that she did not star in a film for years based on the roles she was being offered, which essentially continued to typecast her. Rather than being typecasted, she went to Broadway, winning a Tony for Terrence McNally’s “The Ritz.” and an appearance on “The Muppet Show,” won her a first Emmy, completing her EGOT legacy and the first Latina to do so.
What aids the documentary is Riera’s interviews with many famous names, including Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as they dissect the cultural significance of Rita’s legacy.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is essential viewing and exactly how a documentary should be done. It’s a no-holds-barred examination of the career of a Hollywood legend and one who continues to leave an impact on the business just as she’s about to turn 90 later this year. Coming full circle with this documentary is Moreno’s appearance in a new version of West Side Story, which will hit theaters 60 years after the last one.