"Highly Relevant" 'West Side Story' Returns for 55th Anniversary Screening

The film’s exec producer Walter Mirisch and castmembers including Oscar-winner George Chakiris helped introduce the Oscar-winning 1961 musical.
Todd Wawrychuk/©A.M.P.A.S.
In attendance at the Academy screening of 'West Side Story' (from left): the film's Robert Banas, Walter Mirisch, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn and Maria Jimenez Henley.

It was extremely topical that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a 70mm print of 1961's West Side Story on Monday, said the film’s legendary executive producer Walter Mirisch of The Mirisch Company. 

“We are suffering from the problems of racial warfare to this very day. Consequently, it’s still highly relevant to today’s audience — maybe ever more so than it was at the time,” said Mirisch, introducing the musical before a full house at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, while noting that West Side Story was made in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. 

“I've always hoped people would learn lessons from pictures like this. But not enough have learned the lessons," he lamented. 

Inspired by William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the classic musical starring Natalie Wood and directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins looks at social problems through gang rivalry. The film, which won 10 Academy Awards, on Monday kicked off AMPAS' summer series celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Academy Film Archive. 

Joining Mirisch for a discussion that also commemorated West Side Story's 55th anniversary were George Chakiris, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Sharks gang leader Bernardo; Russ Tamblyn, who played Jets gang leader Riff; and dancer Maria Jimenez Henley. 

"We owe a huge debt to Walter and The Mirisch Company for making this picture," said Chakiris, recalling that he was playing the role of Riff alongside West Side Story co-star and best supporting actress Oscar winner Rita Moreno in the London theater world when he was contacted about the film. Tamblyn also recalled the audition period, admitting he originally auditioned for the role of Tony, which was played by Richard Beymer.

Henley related that she was recovering from an appendectomy when she was set to start work on the film, and she wouldn't let the pain stop her. "If you have a will, you can do it," she said to applause.