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More than 50 years ago, on October 18, 1961, Natalie Wood premiered one of her most iconic movie roles: Maria, the 20th-century twist on Shakespeare’s tragically lovelorn Juliet, in the big-screen version of West Side Story. That Wood could nail the tricky mix of effervescence and anguish the part required was no surprise — after all, at just 23 years old, she was already a Hollywood veteran, an Oscar-nominated star whose astonishing talent had been honed since the age of 4.

And at nearly every stage of her career — her early days as a cute contract moppet; her teenage Method experiments inspired by Rebel Without a Cause; her emergence as a powerful leading lady wooing Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen — LIFE magazine’s photographers were there, capturing Wood’s talent and beauty as they blossomed over the years. Not all those many rolls of film could make it to print, of course, and LIFE.com recently pored through its archives for the best never-before-published photos of the late, radiant star.

Wood had an allure — her Hollywood romances are nearly as renowned as her movies — that matched her extraordinary talent. Before she turned 25, she had collected three Academy Award nominations. But it’s West Side Story that most movie fans think of when they look back on her tragically abbreviated career: her white dress at the dance when she first meets Tony, her girlish delight in “feeling pretty,” and her ultimate fury at the childish men who cost her true love. And those eyes — her mesmerizing, doe-like eyes. Shakespeare could have written about them.

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wss crazy cool by dallowayward
westsidestory
West Side Story

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