West Side Story at 60: An oral history of the film's shocking Oscar triumph

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·5 min read
West Side Story at 60: An oral history of the film's shocking Oscar triumph
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Sixty years after West Side Story became a smash hit at the box office, Rita Moreno, 89, and George Chakiris, 86, have vivid memories of their time on set and how it led to their historic Oscar wins. They're also acutely aware that what was deemed acceptable in 1961 — in Chakiris' case, a Greek man from Oho playing a Puerto Rican gang leader — would likely not be allowed to happen today.

In honor of the movie's 60th anniversary, we asked Chakiris (who just released his memoir, titled My West Side Story, from Lyons Press) and Moreno (who is executive producing and starring in the upcoming remake from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner) to look back at how the movie was cast and what it meant to win their Academy Awards.

GEORGE CHAKIRIS: There were Hispanic people in the cast. Jay Norman [Pepe] was Hispanic. My friend Yvonne Wilder [Consuelo] was. But there were different considerations and always have been over the years. One of my favorite movies of all time is a movie called Zorba the Greek. Zorba is played by Mexican actor Anthony Quinn. He's perfect casting. Who could play Zorba better than Anthony Quinn? There has to be leeway. You have to be creative in your in your work.

RITA MORENO: At that point in my career, I had stopped questioning things like that because I had been living with that forever in Hollywood. All I could see was George, this beautiful young man with this glorious, noble-looking head. I was just amazed that I got the part when you think of it.

CHAKIRIS: It makes sense in today's world [to look for diverse actors]. There are so many more young people in the business to pick from.

MORENO: I remember my makeup being so dark. It was so dark that it would sometimes streak on us because our complexions were much fairer. Some Puerto Ricans are as white as milk and some have copper skin. We are all colors because we were a melting pot for so many countries. I mean, the Dutch were there, the French were there, the Spaniards were there. I will never forget something that the makeup man said to me one time. I came in and he was trying to layer this stuff on me. I said, "I don't understand this. Puerto Ricans are so many colors. Why can't I be my color? I am Puerto Rican." And he actually said to me, "What, are you racist?" It also shows he didn't do his homework. Nowadays makeup people really, really do their homework. I was so stunned by what he said. But that's what Jerome Robbins wanted. He wanted a real contrast. Poor George. He was really pale and has very fair skin. I remember one shot where he looked like he had been dipped into a bucket of mud. It was a close-up of this beautiful young man who looked like somebody had taken him by the ankles and just dipped him over and over in a bucket of mud.

Everett Collection

CHAKIRIS: I do think it's kind of a Pandora's box of endless discussion. Especially today with social media, everybody's got something to say, everybody has opinions and you can't please everybody. We don't want to offend anybody, but we also need artistic freedom to do things as we see them, you know? We can learn something from it. But for God's sake it, if we go back in movie history for different reasons, for different issues, whether it has to do with gender, sexuality, the way women have been treated in film over the years...I mean, there are so many things to take issue with. If you banned all of those things for political reasons, we wouldn't have much history.

Chakiris and Moreno were the only actors from the movie to receive Academy Award nominations that year. West Side Story ended up winning 10 Oscars in 1962, including Best Picture.

CHAKIRIS: I don't remember anyone ever saying a [win] could happen. It never occurred to me I could get it. The nominees were Montgomery Clift, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, and Peter Falk. I mean, if you just say Montgomery Clift, that's enough to make you think, I'm in the same list as him? Good lord.

MORENO: As far as I could see, we were dark horses.

CHAKIRIS: Rita and I attended together. The car picked me up first. When we got to her apartment, as she was coming out of her door, she said she was practicing her loser's speech.

MORENO: We both were. We were like brother and sister, laughing constantly. I think I smelled of pee all the time. I was always laughing so hard with him, I would stain myself. He and I just made up these nasty little speeches because little did we know that not only would we win but [the film] would set a record at that time for the most nominations and wins.

CHAKIRIS: I think Rita and I probably gave the two shortest acceptance speeches ever. [The speech went: "I don't think I'll try and talk too much. I just want to say thank you very, very much."] Nobody thought to thank the world and God and everything.

MORENO: I couldn't think of anything to say. [Actually, she thought of 11 words: "I can't believe it! Good lord. I leave you with that."] I was so sure Judy Garland was going to get it for Judgment at Nuremberg. But I flew in from Manila anyway because I thought if there's any chance that my name will be called, I sure as heck want to be there.

CHAKIRIS As a dancer, I was always looking for work. After West Side Story — it sounds presumptuous to say — I never had to look for work. It always came to me. West Side Story had such an extraordinary impact.

MORENO Just think: If the remake gets nominated for an Oscar, I'll be 90. It's crazy!

For more on the 2021 Oscars race, order the May issue of Entertainment Weekly — with covers featuring Chloé Zhao, Viola Davis, and Regina King — or find it on newsstands beginning April 16, and keep up with EW's Awardist online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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