Rita Moreno has always been an impressive performer, which is how she’s become an EGOT — a winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. But a new documentary about her life, “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It,” explains that her path to success wasn’t easy.
As a young girl, when her mother brought her from Puerto Rico to New York, she was made to feel worthless as an immigrant. After dropping out of high school at 15, she saw no future for herself in Manhattan, so she moved across the country to Hollywood, where she wanted to be a star like her role model, Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, when she went off on auditions, she dressed like Taylor and made herself up to look like her, too. Eventually, she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who gave her a contract.
Unfortunately, that led to years of being treated as a sex object by studio heads and other powerful men. And when she was cast in small parts in movies, it was always as dark-skinned, illiterate, immoral girls. Her parts were mostly negative stereotypes, for which she was told to play up generic accents. Worse, her naturally brown skin was deemed not exotic enough, so she was caked in makeup to make her look darker — a trend that continued through her Oscar-winning performance as Anita in “West Side Story.”
My wife and I saw Moreno tell her life story as part of the St. Louis Speakers Series in January, 2017, so we knew many of her anecdotes, but it was still shocking to hear many of them — including about her long relationship with Marlon Brando, which led to a botched abortion and a suicide attempt.
Fortunately, Moreno’s story is not all drama and sadness. She and Helen Hayes are the only performers to win the triple crown for acting. She won Emmys for guest starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She won a Tony for “The Ritz.” She spent several years on the seminal PBS series “The Electric Company,” winning a Grammy for an album of series highlights. She’s been a Kennedy Center honoree. She’s also been recognized with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, a Peabody Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
At the time this documentary was produced, Moreno was starring in the reboot of “One Day At A Time,” which has since been canceled by Netflix. Yet her career saga is so compelling, and she’s such a good storyteller, that it was an absolute pleasure to spend 90 minutes hearing her walk us through it again.
I give “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It” an 8.5 out of 10.