Thursday, December 9, 2021

Movie Review: Rita Moreno Documentary Plumbs Decades of Gender Inequity

I must admit that I knew little about Rita Moreno before screening “Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It,” Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary about her storied career. Like anybody with a Cinema Studies degree, I have seen “West Side Story” and “Singin’ in the Rain” many times, but Moreno’s television work was either before my time (“The Electric Company”) or outside my sphere of influence (“The Rockford Files”), and I’ve never seen her on a stage.

I’ve obviously missed out. From Moreno’s art to her activism to the glass ceilings she punctured for generations of Latina performers, Riera persuasively casts her subject as a bona fide national treasure, a term so often misattributed to less influential talent that it risks losing its heft.

What’s more, her modern-day footage of an 87-year-old (now 89) Moreno at home in Berkeley offers a portrait of a humble, self-deprecating, sharp-witted celebrity who declares, within the first five minutes of the documentary, that “fame is bullshit”—not the sensibility you’d necessarily expect from an EGOT winner. Later, we see her yelling at the TV while watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings (stars—they’re just like us). In other words, she’s the kind of person I’d want to hang out with.

In telling Moreno’s story, Riera favors a straightforward linear narrative from Moreno’s rocky childhood voyage from Puerto Rico to New York (a scenic transformation she describes, disparagingly, as “a reverse Oz”) to dropping out of school at 15 to dance in nightclubs for a living, developing a burgeoning career in Hollywood, beginning a torturous relationship with Marlon Brando, and becoming a champion for women’s and civil rights, wending all the way toward her late-career renaissance on the “One Day at a Time” TV reboot. Stars and producers from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Gloria Estefan to Morgan Freeman and Normal Lear sing Moreno’s praises and share insights into her craft and her ongoing legacy.

Moreno in “West Side Story”

But, wisely, “Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It” is about more than just Rita Moreno. She is an archetype for an era of abuse and exploitation in the entertainment business that I’d like to think is on life support. As her family’s sole breadwinner in the Hollywood patriarchy of the 1950s, Moreno warded off constant physical and verbal advances from lecherous men in power. She reveals, perhaps for the first time in this documentary, that she was raped by her agent, but that she kept him employed because she saw no other option to get work. Not that such work was anything special until “West Side Story”: Directors treated her like chattel, and she found herself cast in role after role of intellectually moribund parts that exoticized her sexuality and perpetuated ethnic stereotypes.

Moreno essentially is the prism through which Riera and her numerous interviewees break down this constantly uphill battle for creative women of color. As Whoopi Goldberg succinctly puts it, “We always have to prove we’re worthwhile.”

When we meet the vibrant, funny, joyful octogenarian at the beginning of the documentary, it is difficult to square this Moreno with the one who attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, citing her self-destructive relationship with Brando. Her survival is a gift to us all, and a reminder both of how far we’ve come in gender equity in entertainment—and the chasm that still remains.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” opens Friday, June 18 at Cinemark Palace and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Lake Worth, Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, and Cinepolis in Jupiter.


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John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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