Film review: New documentary delves into the extraordinary life of Rita Moreno

'Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It' is part of the reopening of the AFS Cinemas on July 16


Few people have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Fewer still have done so while having to deal with an industry that was determined to keep them “in their place.”

That’s the case with Rita Moreno, as a new documentary by Mariem Perez Riera makes clear. It’s titled “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”

It’s playing at the Regal Arbor, the Barton Creek 14, the Violet Crown and the Hill Country Galleria. It will also be one of three new films that help kick off moviegoing again at the Austin Film Society Cinemas on July 16. The other two are “Summer of Soul” and “The Witches of the Orient.”

Tickets for all of the film society’s offerings for July and August are on sale at T”he offerings include a series of Essential Cinema, featuring Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” as well as Big Screen Classics such as Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun.”

But for now, it’s important to talk about Moreno — a woman who broke down barriers and helped show the way for women and Latinos in American entertainment.

Moreno and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico when Rita was only 5 years old. The precocious child studied dance and performing on Broadway and quickly moved on to Hollywood, where she was cast in ethnic roles, as if it didn’t matter that she was an Hispanic playing a Polynesian girl, a Native-American woman or an Egyptian.

Despite such treatment, Moreno landed the role of Anita In 1961’s “West Side Story” and went on to become the first Latina to win an Oscar.

The Oscar however, didn’t help her get many more roles in the movies, so she branched out, and, as she would say, became a “girl who decided to go for it” on Broadway, as well as in the recording industry and television.

Now in her 80s, Moreno talks bluntly about the strugglers and how she fought for representation.

In one of the more personal moments in the film, Moreno also discusses her long affair with Marlon Brando — and reveals that it eventually became toxic.

The documentary’s director, who was born in Puerto Rico, says that while talking with Moreno that “I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers.” So Riera says she wanted the movie to become “not just a biographical documentary of Rita’s life, but a story about all women who feel alone as the struggle to assert themselves in a patriarchal society rooted in white supremacy.”

That might sound a bit strident to some, but the documentary is not. And a large part of the credit goes to Moreno herself, who manages to find humor and good spirits amid her struggles.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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