By Andrea Thompson
Rita Moreno needs no introduction, but to anyone who’s somehow unaware, she’s an actress with a career spanning over 70 years, a remarkable achievement for any artist, but especially for Moreno, who broke barriers to achieve the kind of longevity and EGOT status in a time when actors of color had few opportunities for complex roles.
However, the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” refuses to allow its audience to simply revel in another uplifting story of an performer who rose from humble beginnings to achieve the American Dream, which just happens to be mentioned multiple times in the film’s first ten minutes alone. Moreno herself certainly had mixed feelings when she first came to the U.S., describing her arrival in New York City from the colorful beauty of Puerto Rico as a “reverse Oz.”
It’s not the love at first sight kind of immigrant story, and Moreno soon developed a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy that would remain with her for much of her life. Her early roles did nothing to alleviate this insecurity, which soon deepened into self-hatred as she found herself playing stereotypical roles, and experienced abuse so horrific I had to stop the documentary multiple times and take a few minutes.
But any danger of the documentary defining Moreno by her worst periods is offset by Moreno herself, whose movie star charisma is enhanced by the warmth and confidence of a woman who’s faced the worst periods of her life and not only survived, but thrived, with numerous awards to prove it. She is the one who provides the kind of reassurance that survival in the face of such darkness is possible, rather than offering easy platitudes and reassurances. As the doc points out, her career didn’t exactly take off after her iconic turn as Anita in “West Side Story” earned her an Academy Award, but rather widened to include TV and the stage.
What Moreno did achieve is rightly celebrated, both by various experts and an impressive array of household names that include Morgan Freeman, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who all show up to pay tribute to a woman who was so inspiring to them. But what the documentary really wants us to ask is what more Moreno could have done had she not been so limited. We may not be worthy of her, but then, who is?