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BWW Review: RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT Is a Beautiful Contradiction

The documentary about the EGOT legend premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week.

BWW Review: RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT Is a Beautiful Contradiction

Rita Moreno - and the documentary about her - deals in contradictions. In the opening moments of "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It," the actress prepares for her 87th birthday party and modestly shares the ways we can tell she's "not a real star." Cut to an opening credits sequence featuring glorious shots of Moreno's myriad prestigious awards, including her EGOT: the borderline unattainable quadruple whammy of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award.

Early on, Norman Lear, appearing as a talking head, says that no one embodies the success of the "American Dream" quite like Ms. Moreno - but the rest of this movie tells a different story, one of quiet determination and even quieter traumas experienced by Moreno and her MGM-contracted woman peers in Hollywood's golden age. If Moreno's story mirrors the American Dream, the American Dream must encompass rape, racism, and all the ways young women of color suffer at the hands of men who insist they must change themselves to be successful in any industry. Success does not erase the pain incurred on the road to success, and attributing Moreno's eight-decade career to the American Dream instead of her personal talent and tenacity does her a major disservice.

Fortunately, "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" gives great weight to the individual factors - not societal conditions - that make its subject so special. The remarkable thing about this film, and Ms. Moreno herself, is its never-failing optimism and goodness. While Moreno does not mince words about the ways Hollywood hurt her and disappointed her, she also never stops being delightful and generous.

Director Mariem Pérez Riera does an excellent job of balancing the harsh truths of Moreno's career with the clearest examples of what makes her the star she continues to be. I was gripped on every detail of Moreno's whirlwind romance and abuse at the hands of Marlon Brando, and then I was absolutely mesmerized by clips of her performance in "The Ritz." I was mortified by the way Moreno was violated by her agent, and then I was inspired by stories of the incredible hard work, dedication, and self-advocacy that went into her Academy Award-winning performance in "West Side Story."

Riera's portrait of Moreno filters in the tricky, true-Hollywood-story elements of her life without making the film read like an exposé. She could have painted Moreno simply as a victim, and she also could have just shown us a highlight reel of everything we already know we loved about her. Surely, hearing from the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Karen Olivo, Terrence McNally, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, and more clues the audience in to Moreno's great impact on entertainment. But this documentary is at its best when we get to read between the lines, and hear stories directly from Moreno's mouth, and come to understand her as not just one of anything. She has been a career actress and singer, and she has also been a devoted wife and mother. She has been a victim, and she has been a survivor. She has done what she needed to do to work, even if that work "hurt her soul," and she has been an advocate for herself and an activist for others. While it's sometimes difficult to peel back the mask, look your hero in the face, and acknowledge their humanity, I feel that understanding the contradictions that fuel Moreno make her life and work seem even more singularly iconic.

Watch the Sundance Film Festival Q&A about the film here:

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