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Very Big Deal in America

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Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (2021)

In the dim and distant past when your reviewer was a small girl living on an American military base in Japan, there was exactly one English-language television channel which had exactly four shows for kids: “Little House on the Prairie,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” and “The Electric Company.” One was historical, one was soothing, one was educational, and one was noisy, anarchic fun. The shows were behind the times, but in our isolation we had no way of knowing, especially since those shows were all the culture we had. It meant that the ordinary greeting on the playground was to holler “HEY YOU GUYS!!!!!” We were quoting Rita Moreno.

It’s hard to imagine how different the Hollywood of now is compared to what it was like when Ms. Moreno started out in 1950 with the total support of her mother. She had a small part in “Singin’ in the Rain,” but that was the very rare part where her ethnicity wasn’t a hindrance. As one of the few non-white and non-black working actors in Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s she was given “ethnic” parts from all over the world – most notably Tuptim in “The King and I.” It might have taken until now, but finally Ms. Moreno is able to speak openly and frankly around how those roles were managed – including a very funny demonstration of the catch-all accent – and how playing all those barefoot peasants made her feel. She is very smart and very funny, and director-producer-editor Mariem Pérez Riera is clearly delighted to help Ms. Moreno settle more than a few scores.

But then she won her Oscar for “West Side Story,” which killed her film career stone dead because no one in Hollywood had the imagination to look past her race to give her parts at her level. A tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando was also nearly the end of her, and this dark time is handled with the thoughtfulness and grace that’s clearly the result of a great deal of hard emotional work. She got her career back on track by doing theater and kids’ television (Morgan Freeman, a k a Easy Reader from “The Electric Company,” is also interviewed) and won so many awards for doing so – her famous EGOT and Triple Crown of Acting – that doors opened almost despite themselves. This is commingled with discussion of her marriage with her late husband, and Ms. Moreno’s frankness here is surprising, especially when other, equally painful issues in her life are glided past.

The film is bookended with shots from the set of “One Day at a Time” on the day when Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of Congress, which rather implies that the world’s forward progress is more of a spiral. The style of this documentary will win no prizes for originality, but Ms. Moreno has lived her life onscreen for over 70 years, and is only lately able to find audiences meeting her where she is. The chance to see her tell her own story in her own words with an understanding director is worth paying close attention to.


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