Recently I was re-watching a classic Marilyn Monroe film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a delightful musical romp in gloriously garish Technicolor. This time I was struck by something during the iconic song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the production number famously parodied by Madonna in her music video “Material Girl.” What made it new to me this time was having recently learned that one of the anonymous chorus boys in the original number in the film would later go on to win an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bernardo in the blockbuster classic musical film version of West Side Story. His name: George Chakiris (pictured above on the far right).
He made his film debut as a choirboy in the 1947 film Song of Love, a heavily fictionalized biography of Robert and Clara Schumann. Other popular films he appeared in, primarily as a dancer, prior to winning the Oscar include There’s No Business Like Show Business (again with Marilyn Monroe), Brigadoon, The Country Girl and White Christmas, all in 1954. But it was West Side Story that put him on the map and was arguably the pinnacle of his film career.
It is a curious fact that winning an Oscar can sometimes be as detrimental to an actor’s film career as it is beneficial; like another West Side Story Oscar-winner, Rita Moreno (who portrayed his girlfriend Anita), he never received subsequent film offers commensurate with his proven acting skills, and his later career focused on television (everything from Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O and The Partridge Family to CHiPS, Dallas and Murder, She Wrote), stage (he appeared as Bobby in the first national touring company of Sondheim’s Company in 1971-72) and pop music.
I involuntarily became rather familiar with his first LP offerings after my sister went to see West Side Story with some of her friends as soon as it was released in 1961. I and my parents, who hadn’t seen it yet, were taken aback when they returned from the theater, four or five teenage girls whose faces were still wet with tears from hysterical crying at the film’s tragic denouement. But it wasn’t the death of Tony (the Romeo character portrayed by Richard Beymer) or the stoic grief of Maria (the Juliet role played by Natalie Wood) that prompted the adolescent waterworks. Rather they were all weepy for the rest of the evening over the death of the charismatic and stunningly handsome Chakiris.
My sister, of course, immediately acquired his first albums (he shamelessly posed for the cover of The Gershwin Songbook reclining next to his Academy Award), and since our suburban home was small, there was no way to avoid hearing his admittedly pleasant voice repeatedly for months afterward. My sister’s infatuation eventually wore off after several albums, but her affection for the film West Side Story has remained strong to this day. If you are lucky enough to get tickets for one of Ravinia’s two screenings of the film on July 17 and 18, with Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score played live by the superb Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you’ll understand why.