SIFF 2021 Review: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Director: Mariem Perez Riera

By Joan Amenn

Before this documentary begins, Rita Moreno speaks directly to the audience and tells them there will be a few surprises in store for them. Her intimacy makes it seem like she is our best friend about to divulge secrets she has never shared with anyone else. ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (2020) is indeed as frank and earthy as the lady herself, with just enough razzle dazzle to remind you that we are in the presence of one of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Moreno’s life is quite literally a “rags to riches” story of struggling for years to overcome prejudice and trauma at the hands of the film studio system. Typecast as every kind of ethnicity but her own, she was ecstatic when Gene Kelly hired her on to the cast for “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) which she thought would finally break her out of that trend. Sadly, it was not to be and she grew weary of studio execs who could only see her covered in brown make-up and speaking with an accent. That was actually the least of the abuses she experienced as a young and beautiful dancer trying to support herself and her mother with no role models or mentors in the industry.

Of course, the most memorable role of her career was Anita in “West Side Story” (1961) which is astonishingly approaching its sixtieth anniversary this October. She won an Oscar for her riveting performance despite being quite certain at the time that she wouldn’t be bringing the statuette home with her. The result is what has been called the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Award history which she still laughs at. Throughout the film, Moreno laughs and jokes around a lot, but there is also some very deep grief.

When you’re an EGOT winner, there is plenty of material for many documentaries, but “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” does not feel bloated or overdone. It is obvious that Moreno herself had a hand in how her story is told here, with a little depreciating humor and lots of direct honesty. She is an inspiration to all women who have to overcome so much to be seen and have their truth heard.

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