Producer: Brent Miller and Mariem Pérez Riera Director: Mariem Pérez Riera Cast: Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, George Chakiris, Norman Lear, Hėctor Elizondo, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Karen Olivo, Justina Machado, Sonia Manzano, Chita Rivera, Mitzi Gaynor, Emilio Estefan Jr. and Terrence McNally Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Rita Moreno has enjoyed a long life and an almost equally long career (she started performing in her teens), and Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary, made for the PBS American Masters series, celebrates both with exceptional candor. That’s because Moreno, whose extensive reminiscences provide an autobiographical framework for “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” not only happily recounts her triumphs (she’s won every major award—Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy) but holds nothing back in discussing the travails she experienced both professionally and personally, or In voicing her opinions as an activist for social causes.
The film begins toward the close, with an ebullient Moreno preparing her eighty-seventh birthday party, after which she begins her recollections, starting with her childhood in Puerto Rico, her move to New York City with her mother, her study in dance and drama, and her screen debut in 1950. She’s not shy about decrying the movie and television roles she was offered through the decade which, with a couple of exceptions (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “The King and I”), involved stereotypes of dark-skinned girls of varying ethnicity—especially Latinas, of course.
Moreno also spares little—apart from specific names of offenders—in discussing the sexual advances she had to endure in Hollywood as a starlet. And she’s uncompromising in describing the passionate but toxic affair with Marlon Brando that began in 1954 and involved a pregnancy, a botched abortion, and a suicide attempt. (The description of their fraught work together later, in 1968’s “The Night of the Following Day” is exceptionally vivid.) She shared with him, however, a devotion to social causes that in her case naturally came to include women’s issues.
Moreno’s Oscar-winning role in 1961’s “West Side Story” is not overlooked, of course, but neither is it allowed to overshadow what followed—her 1965 marriage to Leonard Gordon which, while not without its problems, lasted for forty-five years; a big-screen career that, with a few exceptions, was less than stellar; a return to Broadway, including her 1975 Tony-winning role in “The Ritz”; her television work, including a long-running part on PBS’ “The Electric Company” (which netted her a Grammy) and Emmy-winning guest shots on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files,” as well as later series runs on “9 to 5” and the recent remake of “One Day at a Time;” and her vocalism, which led to a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. Add to all this a Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004) and the National Medal of Arts (2009).
And that’s just a selective list. It’s no wonder that Riera has been able to embellish Moreno’s narration with scads of archival material, not least news footage and clips from her films and television appearances, but excerpts from interviews with her colleagues and admirers, many of whom look upon her as not just an icon but an inspiration—including two of the film’s executive producers, Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Technically there’s nothing exceptional about the film, but it’s capable enough in a conventional way. The new footage has been shot—with an energy that mimics the subject’s own—by PJ López, and everything has been skillfully stitched together by editors Kevin Klauber and Riera. A pleasant score by Kathryn Bostic completes the compilation.
What makes it special is Moreno. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is not just an affectionate portrait of a remarkable woman whose indomitable spirit overcame serious obstacles to fashion an extraordinary career. Because of the particular nature of those obstacles, it’s also a microcosm of the progress that’s become possible for women and people of color in the entertainment industry over the years, thanks in some measure to the path she helped to chart.