Lovely Rita: A new biography of Rita Moreno tells the story of an amazing performer

A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Rita Moreno before she made her appearance at the 2015 Loft Film Festival here in Tucson. Speaking with Moreno transcended the usual interview exchange and left me reeling with joy. Beyond having great stories to tell, she is as nice a person I have ever had the opportunity to talk to, and it left me wishing more people could get the chance to sit and talk with her. Words can’t really describe how cool she is.

But a good documentary with her devoted participation can certainly showcase that coolness, and “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” does this in a big, soul enriching, entertaining way. The EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) participates enthusiastically in the doc that covers the many years and expansive experiences of her storied career.  

Director Mariem Perez Riera gathers a host of entertainers along with Moreno to celebrate her legendary, trailblazing career. The roster includes Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, George Chakiris (Nardo from West Side Story), Norman Lear and fellow EGOT, Whoopi Goldberg. Morgan Freeman, Easy Reader from the eternally awesome The Electric Company in which Moreno featured prominently, also offers his opinions on the wonders of Rita.

With access to a treasure trove of film clips and archival pics, Riera is able to tell the whole story leading up to the present. That present is handled by plenty of new time with Moreno. Moreno is such a charmer, watching her cook breakfast or apply makeup is a mesmerizing experience.  

She tells it all from the very beginning, including her first glimpse of America as her 5-year-old self immigrated from Puerto Rico and sailed into New York thinking the Statue of Liberty was the President of the United States holding a gigantic ice cream cone. Her career got its true start after meeting MGM boss Louis B. Mayer with her mom in his hotel room. Mayer instantly signed Moreno after observing she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,” and she was off to the races.

One of the great pleasures of the film is that it gathers some of her awards acceptance speeches, including her adorably short, enthusiastic thank you for her Oscar. (I’m thinking she and Joe Pesci might be tied for Oscar speech brevity.) It also contains her Tony acceptance speech, where she allowed herself to go a little crazy. Seeing all of these accomplishments in one sitting blasts home the notion that Moreno is the very embodiment of the word “icon.”

There was a lot of pain mixed with the glory, and Moreno doesn’t shy away from the misogyny, racism and sexual abuse that plagued her career, and the career of many others that came before and after her. She endured many years being typecast in one dimensional supporting roles, even after getting her Oscar for West Side Story. 

It was her desire to reinvent her career after that Oscar that eventually led to a significant career in TV, including her central role in The Electric Company, and her Emmy-winning appearance on The Rockford Files. More recent chapters of her career include her starring in the prison drama Oz, and her role in the remake of One Day at a Time. Moreno shares stories on all of these roles that are so engaging, your Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon and Hulu queues are going to load up with Moreno-centric projects after seeing the doc.

A good part of the film is devoted to Moreno’s time with notorious boyfriend Marlon Brando, including the very good and the very very bad. While the film isn’t a crucifixion of Brando, with Moreno reflecting on the at least some of the positives of his presence, the guy definitely came up as a big zero at the end of their time together. He didn’t deserve her. 

You’ll see Moreno again a little later this year in Stephen Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, a remake in which the Puerto Rican roles are actually played by Puerto Rican performers this time around. The original is one of my favorite films, but I’m game for a new take and so is the luminous Moreno. I can’t wait to see her in action again.

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