Let's face it: It's Rita Moreno's world, and we're all just living in it.
The new documentary film about the legendary actress's life is proudly titled, "Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It," and it's a celebration of the now 89-year-old's journey...a true pioneer who somehow leaves us feeling like she has more amazing things to do left in front of her than she has already accomplished behind her. She provides a first-hand account of her experiences - the good, the bad and the ugly - over her stellar, unparalleled 78-year career in show business, and she reveals some shocking, intimate stories about herself and others that she's encountered along the way.
Whether this is your first brush with Rita Moreno or you've been a life-long fan, this documentary is a biopic done right. It's not all fluff and praise and the only knock on it is that it perhaps doesn't achieve the same level of spunk and glowing attitude as its subject. But then again, how do you possibly match Rita Moreno's energetic personality?
Rita - nicknamed "Rosita" at a young age - began doing voice-work and acting by age 11. In the film, she regales her intense journey from Cuba by boat to America, departing with her mother for a "better life" in the States and leaving behind a younger brother she would never see again. Flash-forward nearly 80 years and Rita Moreno is known as one of the most singularly prolific actors of all-time, recipient of the rare "EGOT" (having won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) and the even rarer "PEGOT" (throwing in a Peabody Award to boot).
She is best known for her ceiling-shattering role as Anita in the 1961 classic and 10-time Oscar winning "West Side Story." Up until then, she had been designated only to humiliating roles as ignorant Native girls, slaves or objects of affection, often having to wear skin-darkening make-up and speaking with thick stereotypical accents. She did appear in "Singin' in the Rain" and "The King and I" prior to "West Side Story," but Anita was important because it was the first time ever on film that a Latin woman was portrayed as strong, confident and in control. Moreno, a role model and trail-blazer for several generations that followed, was asked who her role model was, and her answer was her own character, Anita...there simply was no one before Rita Moreno, and the character itself gave her inspiration to plow forward.
On TV, an entirely different generation knew her from the children's show, "The Electric Company," where she received her Grammy for Best Childrens' Album. Her Tony came in 1975 for the Broadway production "The Ritz" and her two Emmy wins were from appearances on "The Muppet Show" in 1977 and "The Rockford Files" in 1978. She also appeared on HBO's prison drama "Oz" from 1997 - 2003 and most recently starred in the sitcom "One Day at a Time" with Justina Machado.
Moreno not only survived but thrived in the Golden Age of Hollywood. She doesn't hold back in sharing her experiences not only as a person of color but as a woman, and the terrible abuse she endured along the way from powerful men - all white - back when it was "a man's game." She even details being raped by her manager. In discussing her romantic relationship with Marlon Brando, she describes how he impregnated her, only to pay for and make sure she followed through with an abortion.
From Brando to her eventual husband, Leonard Gordon, Moreno confesses she was never really in love. She had such a poor image of herself, that it was only after her husband passed in 2010 did she start to reconcile some of her self-doubt and low self-worth. Rita Moreno did finally find the love of her life...herself...the greatest love of all, and damn it if it isn't deserved after what she's endured.
"Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It" hits on all of these milestones, and delivers some key additional moments that also allows her hilarious "firecracker" personality to shine through, like when she briefly hits on a younger crew member setting up her interview shot. It cuts deep yet breezes by quickly, and you get no sense at all that Moreno is nearing any sort of ending point.
There is irony somewhere in the fact that Rita started her career playing racial stereotypes based on what people thought of Native Americans at that time, and that she's now the walking embodiment of what it means to have truly made it in America.
Rita Moreno is a national treasure, a one-of-a-kind presence, a woman of tremendous talent, grace, dignity and humility. To think that a scared immigrant child huddled on a boat can go on to accomplish what Rita Moreno has accomplished is as astounding as it is implausible. But she did it. She has lived the American Dream to the fullest, and has enabled thousands if not millions that have followed in her footsteps the opportunity to pursue the same.
Most documentaries made about aging stars in their twilight years come across as some sort of preemptive "In Memoriam" segment...a fond look back at a stellar career that was, but with an inherent sadness that things are wrapping up. The feeling given off by this film couldn't be more opposite. Moreno is not accustomed to looking back, and if there is one take-away, it's that the best for her may in fact, be yet to come.
If that sounds impossible at her age, then you may not have heard about Rita Moreno.
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Featuring: Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Morgan Freeman, Hector Elizondo, Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, Chita Rivera, Norman Lear, Justina Machado.
Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera ("Croatto, la huella de un emigrante").
"Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" is available on Friday, June 18th, 2021.
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