LIFE celebrates 'West Side Story's 50th anniversary with never-before-seen photos of Natalie Wood

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Image Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images/Courtesy of LIFE.com

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 (see below) 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.)

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Image Credit: Allan Grant/TIME & LIFE Pictures

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.

Read more:
20 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time
The End of Natalie Wood


Comments (44 total) Add your comment
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  • Les

    She was so gorgeous, no matter what was going on with her career, Hollywood always made sure she was an Oscar presenter. She seamlessly made the transition to the more cutting edge of the late 60’s/early 70’s – check out how beautiful she looks in Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice. One of a kind.

    • Tanya

      I agree, she was at the peak of her beauty then (1968-1972), especially with the long straight hair opposed to the short curly style that did not suit her and made her look older.

      As the article mentioned, she received 3 Oscar nominations before turning 25. Sadly, it was all downhill from there. She was only 43 when she died but it had been many, many years since she had any professional success at that point.

      • Ben

        Aren’t you forgetting such late 70s TV successes as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Cracker Factory”?

      • Tanya

        I think you are confusing her with Ann-Margret, who did a remake of Streetcar but that was not until the mid 80s.

        For Wood, it was definately a downfall from being a major star of feature films in her 20s, to becoming a TV movie actress in her 30s.

      • Jane

        my half-sister makes $59 every hour on the computer. She has been fired from work for 6 months but last month her income was $6226 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read about it here ÇashHard.Çom

      • haisu

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  • Mel

    Natalie Wood is one of my alltime favorite actresses. So sad that her life was cut tragically short at such a young age. Loved her as Maria and especially in Splendor in the Grass. She definitely should have won an Oscar for that!

  • jfms777

    Natalie Wood was a fascinating character. Her life story was always interesting. But (I think) her beauty was so mesmerizing that people failed to realize what a fine actress she was. Definitely gone too soon.

  • spanked by teacher

    one of the prettiest women EVER def top 10 maybe top 5

  • PNK

    I love her in ‘Gypsy’ too.

  • abadstroller

    “West Side Story” is one of my favorite musicals because of Natalie Wood. I know that Marnie Nixon was dubbed in post-production as Maria’s singing voice, but it doesn’t detract from Wood’s performance. The fact that the dub is seamlessly sync’ed with Wood’s performance makes her Maria all that more impressive. Still, I’d be curious to hear Natalie Wood’s renditions of the songs. Are there publicly available recordings of her singing any of these now classics?

  • Belle

    Love her!! I always thought one of best Hollywood romances/marriage was Natalie Wood & Robert Wagner. They married young, got divorced and found each other years later, realized they still loved one another, got remarried.

    • Tanya

      “They” didn’t get married young. She was 18, he was 27. According to Suzanne Finstad’s biography of her, Natalie left him when she found Wagner “in a compromising position with another man.” They remarried when she was 33 and he was 42, after which he had allegedly undergone psychiatric treatment and “cured” himself.

      • Oprah

        Oh, please. Everybody knows that biography is full of lies…especially THAT one. Stop speading hateful rumours, dearie.

      • Chelsea

        STFU Tanya and don’t believe everything you read. Geez.

  • Bob

    Fittingly, and tragically, I always think of Gypsy as her iconic role but I love almost all of her movies.

    Inside Daisy Clover is also entirely too fitting.

    • pAAtty

      agree…she was my all time favorite.. I also loved “this property is condemned” and of course, Splendor in the Grass which can still move me to tears..RIP Natalie

  • bridget

    How on earth could Audrey Hepburn have been considered for the role of Maria? She’s ten years older than Natalie Wood! She would have been way too old for that movie.

  • mayor ghouliani

    thank gawd Audrey Hepburn didn’t take the part of Maria, Natalie is everything thing that is Maria (except Puerto Rican lol) She is one of the all time great hollywood stars. Gypsy, The Great Race, Splendor in the Grass, WSS, Sex and the Single Girl,The Searchers!!!!!

  • B

    I always loved her. One of my favorite roles of hers (can’t really think of one I don’t like) is in The Great Race with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Still funny after all these years. Natalie Wood really had range. It still makes me sad to think how we lost her so early.

  • denise

    The bit about Ms. Hepburn has to be a rumor. Aside from being way too old to play Maria, she was NOT pregnant at any point during the production of West Side Story. I think her being considered for this part is a false rumor.

  • Terese

    One of her most delightful films is a little-known gem from 1966, “Penelope.” She is wonderful in it.

    • Debbie

      She really WAS wonderful in “Penelope” – nice to see that someone else remembers it.

  • Julie

    She is my favorite actress. Watch her in “This Property is Condemned” and she will break your heart.

  • scorpio9094

    I think she still looked great in Brainstorm, which I think was her last picture. Those eyes could melt a glacier.

    • jflex

      “Still” ? I guess since she’s dead it doesn’t matter, but women hate that word. She was 43 when she died, but back then 43 was a lot older than it is today. Naomi Watts and Jennifer Aniston are that age now—but they are considered to be “in their prime” ; do people use the word “still” when talking about them?

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