Why the Rita Moreno Sundance documentary should be required viewing


Rita Moreno has received just about every major award and accolade possible for an entertainer — most notably becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award. But the actress, who battled the pain of typecasting early in her career — and questioned her worth because of it — couldn’t see, in the moment, how history-making her career would be for those who came after her.

“Was I aware? No,” she said. “And I wasn’t because I didn’t think of myself in that way. That’s iconic thinking. As far as I was concerned, I had won that Oscar and it was just, ‘Rita Moreno had won that.’ I didn’t know at the time, really, that I was representing [for a community].”

The veteran actress reflects on her career and more intimate moments — including her attempted suicide, as well as the prejudice she endured as a Puerto Rican transplant in New York — in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which made its debut Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary counts Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as TV legend Norman Lear, among its executive producers. (Moreno most recently starred in the reboot of Lear’s “One Day at a Time.”)


Moreno was joined by the film’s director, Mariem Pérez Riera, producers Brent Miller and Ilia Velez and music composer Kathryn Bostic during the virtual L.A. Times Talks @ Sundance panel sponsored by Chase Sapphire.

A youthful Rita Moreno is reflected in a mirror as she applies lip pencil.
A still from “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” by Mariem Pérez Riera, an official selection of the U.S. documentary competition at Sundance.
(Loomis Dean / Getty Images / Sundance Institute)

“This is a film that should be taught in schools across the globe,” said Miller, who is Lear’s producing partner and the one who convinced Moreno to agree to the idea. “It’s not only a story about the American dream — it’s a story about feminism; it’s a story about what it takes to try and become what you want to become. It’s a love story too, at the end of the day, I think a love story with oneself. And when you are able to be 89 years old and reflect upon a life well lived and to be able to do it so honestly, and the way that Rita is so vulnerable and open to the camera, it’s a gift.”

Pérez Riera said she listened to the audio book of Moreno’s 2013 autobiography, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” multiple times as a reference guide, trying to pinpoint where she could go deeper than what was on the page. It also inspired her to use stop-motion animation with paper-doll sequences as a through line in the film.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” looks at the ups and downs of the EGOT winner who’s had to overcome Hollywood racism and misogyny.

Jan. 30, 2021

“Reading her book, I realized that she had to be someone that she didn’t want to be,” Pérez Riera said. “I got inspired by her [sharing that] her mom used to make her dresses. So I put those things together, her mom putting her [in] dresses and making her dress up in all these different costumes, because since she was a little girl she’s been performing, so that was my first image. But ... those costumes were also all the different personalities that she’s playing — that’s not her. And to see her now being herself after so many years of her playing someone that she was not, I think it was important.”


In addition to Moreno’s talk down memory lane, the film includes interviews with friends, former collaborators, and admirers including Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Eva Longoria, George Chakiris, Karen Olivo and Justina Machado.

The film is slated to have a theatrical run and will later air on PBS as part of its “American Masters” documentary series.

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