She’s a living legend, the one, the only Rita Moreno, and in the new documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,” you learn things about her that you wouldn’t believe.
Disregard whatever you think you know about Rita Moreno—we barely know half of it.
Here’s what we know. Rita Moreno is an actress, singer, dancer and Puerto-Rican-American icon who is forever etched in the history books as playing Anita in “West Side Story,” for which she became the first Latina to win an Oscar.
She’s been in the entertainment industry for seven decades. And during that amazing period, she was part of the studio system as a teenager, smashing barriers as a woman of color in Hollywood. It wasn’t easy, at all.
At just 89 fast-flowing minutes we step inside Moreno’s shoes, looking at her life in chronological order, providing interesting tidbits like her having a minor role in “Singin’ in the Rain” to her iconic “Hey you guys!” catchphrase in “The Electric Company” to later playing a fearless nun in “Oz” (HBO).
The best word to describe “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is charming because Moreno herself is charming, and here she is open about her life. She’s dealt with misogyny, racism, and a volatile 7-year relationship with Marlon Brando.
Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Moreno immigrated to New York City with her mother when she was just five years old.
A gifted seamstress, her mother made clothing and costumes. Moreno’s first break came after meeting Louis B. Mayer in his penthouse at the Waldorf Astoria, the first time she or her mother had ever been inside a hotel. Smitten, Mayer dubbed her a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” and she was signed to MGM.
She and her mother relocated to Culver City, California; a short walk to the studio was needed because they could not drive.
Here, Moreno learned the ropes, starting with a lot of supporting roles as every ethnic stereotype, sadly, popular in 1950s Hollywood: Native American, Asian, Mexican, Russian, Hungarian—Moreno did it all.
There is a stinging moment when actress/producer Eva Longoria re-enacts a Moreno bit about using “the universal ethnic accent” for every audition. This is one woman who knows the deep level of Hollywood’s racism, with her wearing yellowface in “The King and I” and darkening her face to play island girls and native women.
It wasn’t until “West Side Story” (1961) that Moreno was finally playing a Puerto Rican woman.
Kudos and hats off to the filmmakers of “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” for not shying away from the challenges of being a gifted woman of color in the entertainment industry. Thankfully, Moreno has no shortage of stories that both entertain and shock revealing some of Hollywood’s darkest truths.
Director Mariem Pérez Riera gently asks us to imagine what Moreno’s life could have been if she had not had all the roadblocks created by “isms.”
Chiming in, and sharing their opinions to the piece include Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, Justina Machado, and Puerto Rican scholar and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner.
In the film’s conclusion, the question asked is the hardest: “How far could she have gone if she hadn’t had those limits?” Here’s the thing, Rita Moreno knew the risks and decided to go for it and since she’s a living legend—I think she did all right!
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” hits theaters June 18.