by Jeff Labrecque
Fifty years ago today, West Side Story opened in theaters and became an instant global sensation. Adapted from Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway musical — a modern, urban twist of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet — the film entranced audiences with its acrobatic choreography, finger-snapping songs, and heartbreaking tragedy. To commemorate the occasion, LIFE.com is currently showcasing a look back at the iconic film and a gallery of never-before-seen photos of Natalie Wood, who won the role of the innocent Puerto Rican girl in love with her brother’s sworn enemy only after Audrey Hepburn declined due to her pregnancy.
By the time 23-year-old Wood landed the role of Maria, she was already an established Hollywood veteran, a former child star (Miracle on 34th Street) who’d made the leap to more mature roles (Rebel Without a Cause). Though she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her role in West Side Story — her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon and she instead received a Best Actress nod for the same year’s Splendor in the Grass, opposite Warren Beatty — the musical won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (Wood lost to Sophia Loren, who took home the trophy for Two Women.)
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.