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Oscar's living legends

All four of the acting winners from 50 years ago — Sophia Loren, Maximillian Schell, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris — recall the golden night the Academy called out their names

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Sophia Loren
Best Actress, Two Women
After playing a young mother in WWII Italy in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, Sophia Loren became the first performer to be nominated and win for a foreign-language role. ”I thought I was too young to play her because I was 25 years old and she had a daughter of 14,” recalls Loren, now 77 and living in Geneva. ”It was a big step in my career because, instead of doing little comedies here and there, it started to be serious. But I knew about World War II and misery and hunger and illnesses and tragedies, because I experienced them. Me and my family. We walked around like two fous, like two crazy women, my mother and I, just like we did in the movie.”

Despite her unprecedented nomination, Loren opted not to attend the ceremony. (And while she left an empty seat again three years later when she was nominated for Marriage Italian Style, Loren made sure to pick up her 1991 Honorary Award in person.) ”I didn’t even think that I would win, it wasn’t possible,” she says. ”I didn’t come to the Oscar ceremony because I thought, ‘If I win, I’m going to faint, so it would be better if I faint at home where nobody can see me than on the stage.’ ” Still, she sat at home with her husband, producer Carlo Ponti, in case the phone should ring with news. ”When it was 6 o’clock in the morning in Italy, we said, ‘Maybe the ceremony is over. I must have lost.’ And then, about maybe a half hour later, the telephone rang and it was Cary Grant on the phone and he said to my husband, ‘Sophia won.’ And my husband didn’t speak a word of English, so he said, ‘Che cosa? Sophia win? Sophia win!’ And that’s how I found out.” Soon after, the Italian press was at her door. ”So I said, ‘Come up.’ I was still in my nightgown,” she says. ”I didn’t care at all. At 27, to win an Oscar, my God! Coming from Pozzuoli, Naples, I mean, can you imagine? It was a fairy tale.”

Rita Moreno
Best Supporting Actress, West Side Story
Following her turn as headstrong Anita in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ film version of the hit Broadway musical West Side Story, Rita Moreno was working on a less prestigious production — ”a crappy World War II movie called Cry of Battle” — in Manila, the Philippines, when she got word of her nomination. ”I was playing yet another ethnic role, this time Sisa, a Filipina guerrilla girl,” recalls Moreno, who recently turned 80. ”I even had my Oscar gown made there by a designer in Manila. I was only in town for the awards ceremony, and I had to fly back — unhappily, I might add — the very next day.”

Despite Moreno’s stellar performance, Judy Garland was considered the favorite in her category for Judgment at Nuremberg. But the night of the ceremony, Garland elected to stay home, claiming her son had an earache. ”Before I won, I was making up all sorts of sour-grapes speeches and practicing my loser’s face,” says Moreno. ”I thought Judy Garland surely would get it. And then my name was called out. I really was dumbfounded, and when it came to a speech, I didn’t practice anything. It probably would have been longer if I had.” In fact, here’s the full transcript of her flustered acceptance speech: ”I can’t believe it! Good Lord! I leave you with that.” At the Governors Ball afterward, Moreno was too excited to eat her steak dinner. The next day, she hopped on a plane back to the Philippines, although not without her award. ”They wanted to take it from me to engrave it,” she remembers, ”and I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m taking it with me!”’

Moreno, who currently stars on the TV Land sitcom Happily Divorced, never earned another Oscar nomination, but she has collected plenty of other accolades over the years. ”My Academy Award sits with all of my other awards in my living room,” she says. ”Actually, I’m an EGOT winner, so it has company. Although I had to get it replated a number of years later because the poor guy got a terrible case of acne.”

George Chakiris
Best Supporting Actor, West Side Story
Before he won an Oscar for his role as Bernardo — the knife-fighting, pirouetting captain of the Sharks — George Chakiris acted in the London stage production of West Side Story. Coincidentally, the actor was back in England when he first heard of his nomination. ”I was attending the Royal Film Performance of West Side Story,” he says. ”Queen Elizabeth II was there to watch our movie. I was at the small bar in the lobby when [West Side Story director] Robert Wise came over to me during intermission and whispered that he had gotten a call from L.A. and I was nominated. I took it all very quietly. I just listened to it, and then went in and watched the second half of the movie with the Queen.”

Fifty years ago, Oscar nominations didn’t lead to the PR whirlwind that they do today. ”There wasn’t that much campaigning,” says Chakiris, now 79. ”I had lunch with Louella Parsons once at the Brown Derby, but I didn’t have a press agent, so nothing was organized for me. It’s so different now. Heck, in 1962, we didn’t even have merchandising. We probably could have made money with West Side Story wristbands, or Anita and Bernardo action figures.”

Those toys would have been sold separately, but the real Anita and Bernardo came to the Oscars as a pair. ”Rita and I went together as each other’s dates,” says Chakiris. The two were seated side by side as their names were announced from the podium. ”They called my name, and I’ve never been able to describe what that felt like. I just can’t do it. You go back and do the pressroom, then you come back to take your seat. So I got back, and of course they call up Rita because she won. We were such good friends, and still are, so it was just wonderful to both win in one night.”

Maximilian Schell
Best Actor, Judgment at Nuremberg
The handsome, lantern-jawed Maximilian Schell was easily the least recognizable face amid a galaxy of Hollywood stars in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. Yet on Oscar night, the Austrian-born 31-year-old took home the film’s sole acting prize. That’s a big achievement for someone who had first stepped foot in the U.S. only four years earlier. As it happens, Schell was almost a no-show for his big moment. ”It was snowing terribly in Europe and I missed my plane,” recalls the actor, calling from his farm in Austria. ”I had to take a different one that went via Toronto, and when we arrived in Toronto one hour late, I was sure I wouldn’t make it. Indeed we missed most of the ceremony, but somehow we made it there 20 minutes before they called my name. It was quite a close call.”

In the process, Schell beat out American heavyweights like Judgment costar Spencer Tracy and The Hustler‘s Paul Newman. Schell’s recognition came as a personal triumph for a man who hailed from a family of actors. ”I remember exactly what I was thinking [when I won],” he says. ”I thought: Now, in Europe, they won’t call me the little brother of [popular actress] Maria Schell anymore. Of course, the next day I flew back to Frankfurt and there was a big headline in the newspaper, ‘Little Brother of Maria Schell Wins the Oscar.’ Fame is a strange thing.”

Nowhere is fame stranger than in Hollywood. While a statuette can serve as a golden key to unlock movie opportunities, Schell still had to fight against typecasting. ”For a while every Swiss, German, or Austrian character was being offered to me,” he says. The actor turned down most of them, including the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, although he adds that he regrets not accepting that one. He earned two more nominations for his work in 1975’s The Man in the Glass Booth and 1977’s Julia, but the first time has remained the charm. And that suits Schell just fine. ”People are different to you when you win an Oscar,” he says. ”You’re sort of a special guest. I like that, I must say. It’s like the closest I’ll ever come to being dubbed a lord.”

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