Tuesday, Feb 07, 2023

Acting Oscars for playing the same character: What connects, what separates the 1961 and 2021 versions of West Side Story

Anita DeBose has matched Rita Moreno by bagging the Best Supporting Actress award for playing the character of Anita. Before that, there were Vito Corleone and the Joker.

Rita Moreno as Anita in 1961's West Side Story (left) and Anita DeBose as Anita in 2021's West Side Story (right). (YouTube screengrab/File Photo)

Exactly 60 years before Ariana DeBose bagged the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story (2021), Rita Moreno had bagged the same award for the same role — that of Anita — in the 1961 version of the same film, which had swept the 1962 Academy Awards.

The 2021 version, directed by Steven Spielberg, had been much talked about in the lead-up to the Oscars. In the end, it won only for Best Supporting Actress. But that still represented a statistical landmark.

Same role, two awards

Before Anita in the twin versions of West Side Story, only two film characters had won an Oscar for the actors playing them in two different films.

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The first was Vito Corleone in the first two parts of The Godfather trilogy. After Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for the iconic title role in The Godfather (1972), Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for playing the same character in The Godfather Part II (1974). Part I shows the final days of Vito Corleone, Part II shows him in flashback in his childhood and youth, and Part III (1990) does not feature the character at all.

The record stood for 45 years between 1975, when De Niro won his award, and 2020, when it was finally matched by Joaquin Phoenix who won Best Actor for his role in Joker (2019). The previous actor who won an Oscar for playing the Joker was the late Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight (2008).

After Vito Corloene and the Joker brought their actors a Best Actor and a Best Supporting Actor award for each, Anita has now become the only character to have fetched her actors the same award (Supporting Actress) on two occasions.

More trivia: Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 version, also appears in the 2021 version, as a different, older character.

1961 vs 2021


The 1961 version of West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise (who would later make The Sound of Music, 1965) and Jerome Robbins, is considered a landmark in many respects. It is essentially a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, updated to 1950s America, although it cannot be considered a remake of any of the film or stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. Like the stage original, the 1961 film version of West Side Story combined music with spectacle during an era when musicals were still in fashion and when a number of spectacular films were coming out of Hollywood. In 1997, a poll among experts conducted by the American Film Institute ranked it at 41 among the 100 greatest American films ever made.

At the 1962 Oscars, it bagged 10 awards, which remains the second highest ever won by a single film. Until then, only Ben-Hur (1959) had won more, with 11 awards out of 12 nominations. West Side Story (1961) had 11 nominations, and missed only the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The 2021 version had fewer nominations at 7, but was seen as among the favourites to bag Best Picture and Best Director, which would have meant matching the 1961 version in these two categories.


Since the 1961 version’s 10 Oscars, two films have topped that count — Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), both of which matched Ben-Hur’s 11 awards.

West Side Story at the Oscars 

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First published on: 28-03-2022 at 21:11 IST
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