R | 1h 30min | Biography, Documentary | 18 June 2021 (USA)
As plum and deserving as any entertainer living or dead for their own biographical documentary, the now 89-year-old Rita Moreno is an undeniable national treasure both in her native Puerto Rico and in the United States. She is the only person to ever win competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards (collectively known as the “EGOT”), who has also received a Peabody, a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, a National Medal of Arts Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor. To label Moreno as an overachiever would be a huge understatement.
Had director Mariem Pérez Riera’s new unwieldy-titled “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” focused entirely on Moreno’s professional and personal highs and lows, it would’ve been more than enough to thrill Moreno’s fan-base while introducing her to those who have never heard her name.
Alas, this was not to be and, like far too many fictional and non-fictional features released over the last two decades or so, “Just a Girl” isn’t content with “just the facts” and unsuccessfully injects far more social and political commentary than the average apolitical viewer will want or care to tolerate.
No Intention to Be Objective
Although there are always some exceptions, projects of this ilk are usually produced with little or no direct input from the subject, as to not present any appearance of bias. This is not the case with “Just a Girl.” Starting with the opening scene where Moreno is planning her own annual themed birthday party, it doesn’t take long to figure out the film is going to be more of a vanity project than a “warts-and-all” objective analysis.
To be completely fair to Moreno, this is entirely fitting with her effervescent personality—that’s simply her nature and all the more reason her participation should’ve been considerably reduced or outright eliminated. The amount of archival interviews and clips with her shown in the film are more than enough to establish her perspective on…well, everything. A full third of the movie includes new interviews with Moreno where commentary, reflection, and insight from others would have proved to be more resonant and impactful.
This is only part of a larger problem.
Less than a third of the 16 interviewees (Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Sonia Manzano, Norman Lear, and Terrence McNally) have actually worked with Moreno in the past. Given Moreno’s seven plus decades-long career, this is not unexpected. Moreno has outlived most of her former collaborators and in their stead, Riera chose to include interviews with current, all-Latino or Latina personalities, who, in much the same manner as Moreno, speak of past bias against people of color in the entertainment industry rather than extol the significant forward-thinking strides.
As previously explored in her 2013 biography “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” Moreno revisits her brushes with sexual harassment, which range in severity from crude come-ons to rape. Regarding the latter, Moreno only identifies the perpetrator as her agent at the time, yet despite this abhorrent event, she continued to remain his client.
What is absent is any mention of “casting couch” auditions and to their credit, Moreno and Riera include the former’s fond recollection of the meeting as a teen with MGM co-founder Louis B. Meyer which led to her first studio contract.
Life and Performance Highlights
It was common practice during Hollywood’s Golden Age that studios would decide who their talent would date, what they would say in public, and what events they would attend; Moreno was no different. As nothing new is learned here and there were no incidents discussed pro or-con, the inclusion of this non-event seems to be a waste of valuable screen time.
Arguably the most interesting portion of the film is when Moreno speaks of her only two discussed romantic interests (although she dated Elvis Presley off-and-on for some time, he’s never mentioned). Worthy of a stand-alone movie, her mostly tumultuous decade-long relationship with Marlon Brando is something which obviously still haunts her, and upon finally ending it, she perhaps overcompensated by marrying cardiologist Leonardo Gordon. A nebbish man who fathered her only child, Gordon was everything Brando was not, and he eventually became Moreno’s manager. By her own admission, Moreno considered their situation more of a business partnership than passionate romance, yet they were married for 45 years until his death in 2010.
Riera includes highlights of Moreno’s acting career yet does so in an often rushed, fit-it-all-in manner, with some few scenes from her Tony-winning performance in “The Ritz” from 1975 being the best of the lot. Not faring as well are too-brief clips from the TV shows “The Electric Company,” “The Muppet Show,” and “The Rockford Files.” Less than a minute is spent on the controversial HBO prison drama “Oz” where she played a nun for the entire six-year run of the series.
As one might expect, it is Moreno’s role in “West Side Story” (1961) that gets the most attention. After winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, Moreno began receiving offers for roles in other films which she states were almost identical in nature—all of them playing brassy Latina types. Determined not to be typecast, Moreno stated that she didn’t make any movies for seven years which is simply not the case. Between 1962 and 1969, Moreno appeared in four feature films while also playing Latina characters on three episodic TV shows. While this documentary was being shot, Moreno was taping the second of four seasons for the Latin-flavored reboot of the Norman Lear series “One Day at a Time,” and playing another brassy Latina.
Although little is known about the nature of the role, Moreno co-produced and will be appearing in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” as a character named Valentina (scheduled for release on Dec. 10). Although she shows no signs of slowing down, the new “West Side Story” would serve as an apropos and poetic swan song to an incredible career.
For those already aware of the details of Moreno’s life, Riera’s sparse (90 minute) film offers nothing new or revelatory, but for those unfamiliar with her story, it’s a decent bullet-point start. However, the political content often distracts from her significance and influence as a performing artist.
What might have worked far better—and something which could have presented Moreno’s legacy in a more balanced light— would have been a two-part premium cable production that separated her personal and professional lives.
It would be a shame if “Just a Girl” was the final word on such a fascinating and complex person.
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It’
Director: Mariem Pérez Riera
Stars: Rita Moreno, Eva Longoria, Morgan Freeman, Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is based in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on floridamanradio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles.