Los Angeles.- By Vasilis Papoutsis/Special to the Greek News
The 12th Annual Los Angeles Greek Film Festival (LAGFF) came to a festive conclusion on Sunday night at the landmark Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, CA with the presentation of its glamorous Orpheus Awards that was preceded by the Closing Night feature screening of Perfect Strangers. The theme of this year’s Orpheus Awards was “The Academy of Greeks” paying tribute to the many Greek and Greek American artists who have been nominated or won an Academy Award since 1936. Iconic actor, dancer and singer George Chakiris who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1962 for the film “West Side Story” was this year’s special honoree and his dear friend Rita Moreno and winner of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the same film was the presenter.
Oscar Winner George Chakiris is part of a special group of Greek American artists among them Elias Kazan who had won before him in 1955 for his masterpiece “On the Waterfront”. Michael Cacoyannis, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes and Dean Tavoularis are just a few of the others in the selective group. The five day festival presented 11 feature films, 15 documentaries and 27 shorts out of the record number of 175 submissions that was sent to the committee.
The festival had for the first time 2 opening nights in order to celebrate its inaugural collaboration with the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture, with the screening of Tassos Boulmetis docudrama 1968. The film screened at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater a place very special to the director who is a UCLA alumnus.
Acting Director Sharon Gerstel was “particularly excited about this event because I can’t think of a more meaningful beginning of our partnership with the LAGFF than showcasing the work of one of our most outstanding alumni, Tassos Boulmetis and we are looking forward to our future collaborations that will showcase Greek films for our students and for the community” she said.
The opening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on June 6th featured the West Coast premiere of Marios Piperides’ comedy Smuggling Hendrix that had won the “Best International Narrative Feature” at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Orpheus Emcee Chuck Dukas, a warm up comedian for TV shows and an actor with roles at The Young and The Restless and Bold and the Beautiful, attempted a fresh approach to the ceremony but it received a mixed reaction from the audience.
The awards ceremony was even more lengthy than usual and the presenters seemed confused at times but the presentation of the Orpheus Award to George Chakiris was well executed, and Rita Morenos and Chakiris joint appearance on stage rewarded the audience with a trip to the Hollywood’s golden era. Even though George Chakiris reached the top of Hollywood’s acting elite, his first two loves were music and dance. Chakiris’ family originated from Platiano, a Greek village in Turkey and “my grandfather who had come through Ellis Island when he immigrated to America went back to Platiano to find 2 girls for his boys to marry. The two girls met the boys at the train station and my grandfather said this girl is for you and this one is for you” Chakiris said. George Chakiris moved with his family to Long Beach, California at the age of 12. He was singing at the Tucson Boys Church Choir in Arizona and when he arrived to Long Beach he joined the choir of the historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
In high school a girl’s dancing partner had joined the Navy, and she asked George to dance on the school show with her and Chakiris was hooked. One day he took the train from Long Beach to Hollywood and audited a class at the famed American School of Dance. After that he knew that he was meant to be a dancer. He got a job with the May Company as an office boy and found a room on Hollywood Boulevard on the same building where the famous actor and director Mack Sennett was renting. Chakiris sang in the Song of Love, an MGM biopic starring Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid and Robert Walker.
`“It had a real impact on me, the sets, the camera, the studio everything was fascinating.” He was in high demand as a dancer and was hired to be one of the dancers in Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the classic White Christmas in 1954. He then worked in as a dancer and singer in various Las Vegas shows most notably The Tropicana Holiday starring Jayne Mansfield. But he was aiming higher and one day he took the train to New York and by the time he got there the West Side Story play had its one year anniversary on Broadway.
“I was told they were auditioning for new cast members and went to the Winter Garden Theater and met with Jerome Robbins. On my birthday on September 16, 1958 I got a call that I got the part of Riff for the new London Company and at the same day received 7 checks from unemployment each worth $35. It was my most memorable birthday” Chakiris recalled.
Chakiris had a great time playing Riff in the London production, “Princess Margaret came to the premiere of the play on December of 1958.” He auditioned for the film 18 months later but this time United Artists picked two scenes for him, one as Riff and one as Bernardo. A few days later when he was back in London he got a telegram telling him that he had gotten the role of Bernardo. “They were both great characters. Riff was a better role in the theater play but Bernardo was a better role in the film production. My work on the film took 8 months to complete.” Chakiris got rave reviews for his part as Bernardo the leader of the Sharks gang but when the Oscar nominations were announced it was Montgomery Clift who was thought to be the favor to win. “I did not expect to win the Oscar so I had not prepared a speech. I was surprised when I won and I gave a very short speech. My parents were at the audience and I even forgot to thank them” Chakiris added.
George Chakiris received the 2018 Honorary Orpheus Award from his best friend and legendary actress Rita Moreno. “I met George at the rehearsals for the West Side Story and we immediately connected. We have remained close family friends all these years later. He is a godfather to my daughter.” For her role as Anita in the film she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and she is only one of 12 artists to have won all four major American entertainment awards: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. Moreno who is a talented dancer herself says that “George is a smashing dancer. One of the most elegant dancers I have ever seen. I can only compare his elegance with one other dancer, Fred Astaire” she said.
The other Orpheus award winners were Thodoris Atheridis for his direction of Perfect Strangers, Katia Goulioni for her performance in Polyxeni, and Yorgos Angelopoulos for Goldfish that won Best Short. Best Fiction Feature film went to Polyxeni and Best Documentary to Dolphin Man by Lefteris Charitos. Special Jury Award went to Tassos Boulmetis for his film 1968.