The subtitle of the excellent documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is an expression of which the EGOT-winning actor is fond; we see her, late in the film, attending an awards ceremony wearing the phrase on a glittery T-shirt. But its very lightheartedness sets up the viewer for a surprise. This film, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, isn’t a fluffy, sunshine-bright tribute to a beloved star, but something much deeper and more interesting: Moreno, now in her late 80s, thoughtfully walks us through a life that encompassed both enormous success and constant struggle.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1931, Moreno came to New York at the age of 5 with her divorced mother, leaving behind a younger brother who she never saw again. A girl who loved to dress up and dance, she was eventually spotted as a teen by an MGM talent scout (for the meeting with studio head Louis B. Mayer, Moreno remembers carefully styling herself to look like Elizabeth Taylor). Soon, 16-year-old Rosita — quickly rechristened in honor of Rita Hayworth, as her real name was deemed too ethnic by her first agent — and her mother were on a train to Hollywood.
Moreno matter-of-factly describes the harrowing reality of being a Latina woman in show business, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s: the string of “exotic” roles, wearing “makeup the color of mud”; the verbally abusive directors; the sexual harassment and assault from powerful men (she describes being raped by her agent); the roles that, even after winning an Oscar, weren’t open to her. While there were some glorious moments — an early role in “Singin’ in the Rain” (she was on the set when Gene Kelly performed the title number, calling it “one of the great experiences in my life”); the dream role of Anita in “West Side Story” — there was also great darkness. A long affair with actor Marlon Brando resulted in a dangerous illegal abortion and a suicide attempt.
Moving primarily into television in the 1970s (the movie roles just weren’t coming), Moreno describes the pleasures of working on the PBS children’s show “The Electric Company,” of raising her daughter, of getting involved in the civil rights and feminist movements, of slowly finding work that brought her joy. Now widowed, she’s painfully honest about her long marriage — it was one that looked perfect on the surface, but was troubled. And we see her working at her latest project, the acclaimed sitcom “One Day at a Time,” where her co-workers joke that Moreno gets all the applause from the studio audience. “It goes up and down,” Moreno says, of an acting career. “Right now it’s up.”
It’s a remarkable life well-told, with numerous other voices — particularly Latina performers like Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Karen Olivo and Gina Rodriguez (the latter delivering a “love letter” to Moreno at the 2015 Kennedy Center Awards) — chiming in to provide context and cite Moreno as an inspiration. And the legend herself, at its center, is a warm and mesmerizing presence. In a recent speech that ends the film, Moreno alludes to her past, but looks forward. “I am so blessed,” she says quietly. “Damn the shadows, and here’s to the light.”