Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It tells the fascinating story of the triumphs and tragedies in her life. Moreno is such talented actress she earned an EGOT over the course of her career and was the third person ever to do so. This achievement is laid bare on the shelves behind her during some of her interview sessions. Famous friends and co-stars George Chakris, Gloria Estefan, Hector Elizondo, Morgan Freeman, Norman Lear, Eva Longoria, and Lin Manuel Miranda appear in the film to sing her praises.
Just a Girl… opens with Moreno preparing to celebrate her 87th birthday. At this point in her life, she continues to work, co-starring on the One Day at a Time remake. Before she is needed on set, she’s focused on the Christine Blasey Ford testimony during the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. As Monroe’s story is revealed, her interest and the material’s inclusion in the documentary is made clear.
Born in Puerto Rico, she was brought to New York City by her divorced mom, leaving father and brother behind. At six years old, she debuted in a night club. She then dropped out of school at 15 and became family’s sole bread winner. For a meeting with Louie B. Mayer at 16, she dressed like Liz Taylor, because she had no role models for people like her as actresses like Rita Hayworth hid their Latina identity.
She soon found out how terrible a place Hollywood could be, both off and on screen. At a party, she was introduced to Roy Cohn, who told her he’d like to fuck her. The host danced with and grinded against her. She found solace from gardeners who helped sneak her out of the party. She was typically cast as ignorant native girls with darkened skin: Polynesian, Siamese, Native American. Singin’ in the Rain presented a different role, but she then went back to darkened maidens. She wanted to turn the parts down but had to make a living. She was raped by her agent, but since he was helping her career, she retained him, which still astonishes her upon reflection.
She had an on-again, off-again affair with Marlon Brando for eight years that was kept quiet. He helped her become politically active, leading her to join the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he also caused a lot of emotional damage. After he got her pregnant, the doctor botched an abortion and she almost died from it. In response to Brando’s brazen infidelity, she would later attempt suicide with sleeping pills in his home. Seven years later, they made The Night of the Following Day together and an intense scene between them worked out things for her.
She had trouble finding work after winning an Oscar for West Side Story. She went to Broadway but the show ran just a week. However, she got to meet her future husband Dr. Leonard Gordon. She tells an adorable first date story, but says they weren’t a great couple. She found him too controlling, and is a tad relieved at his passing.
Moreno’s story has many facets. Hers is a story about Hollywood, about the American Dream, and about being a woman. Hers is a story about perseverance and belief in herself because whenever there has been a setback in her career or her life, she found a way to overcome it and thrive. Hers is a story that deserves to be shared in order to learn from its example. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It will air as a part of PBS’ American Masters.