In the 1950s, Hollywood was forced to face changes in the media landscape with the proliferation of television. Needing to lure audiences from the comforts of their own homes and back into the theaters, studios made massive historical epics and spectacular genre films. But moviegoers also wanted character driven fare and they were richly rewarded with some of the finest dramatic performances of the Golden Era. Here are all ten Academy Award winners for Best Actor in the 1950s.
Though the production values of Michael Gordon’s film adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play were stagey and claustrophobic, Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer delivered a top-notch performance as the lovelorn Cyrano, a supreme poet and swordsman with a rather unfortunate nose who uses the handsome, but tongue-tied Christian (William Prince) to help him woo the beautiful Roxanne (Mala Powers). Ferrer reprised his acclaimed stage role with similar flare and won the Oscar for Best Actor over Louis Calhern in The Magnificent Yankee, William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, James Stewart in Harvey and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride.
While he was best remembered as the cynical Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), Humphrey Bogart was undoubtedly at his best playing the gruff and boozy sailor, Charlie Allnut, who ferries a morally uptight missionary (Katharine Hepburn) through dangerous territory in John Huston’s classic romance. The barbs fly between Bogart and Hepburn in an all-time great screen pairing, as both earned Academy Award nominations for their performances. But it was Bogie who walked away with Oscar, beating out the likes of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory and Frederic March in Death of a Salesman.
In what amounted to the most iconic performance of his career, Gary Cooper was at his best in Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western where he played Will Kane, the outgoing Marshal of an Old West town who awaits the arrival of four outlaws intent on killing him despite his intentions to marry a Quaker girl (Grace Kelly) and settle into a life of peace. After being abandoned by the townspeople, Kane is forced to go it alone, pitting his violent past against his peaceful future. Cooper had strong competition in 1952, but was deserving of Oscar in winning over Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!, Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful, José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge and Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob.
Though he was shut out for his performance as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden triumphed in his reunion with Billy Wilder as Sgt. J.J. Sefton, a wisecracking POW inside a Nazi prison camp who comes under suspicion as a snitch by his fellow inmates. Holden’s cynically comic performance elevated his status as a top Hollywood star and later led to the more lighthearted sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. But most importantly, the role earned Holden his only Oscar, winning over the likes of Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, Richard Burton in The Robe, Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity.
After being denied the Oscar in his previous three tries, Marlon Brando finally won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, one of the greatest on-screen performances in movie history. Brando played washed-up boxer, Terry Malloy, a slightly dim-witted dock worker who witnesses a mob murder and is compelled by a local priest (Karl Malden) to testify even though his own brother (Rod Steiger) works for the mafia. Brando’s powerful performance, which is punctuated by his famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, won him his first of two Oscars, beating out Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, James Mason in A Star is Born and Dan O’Herlihy in Adventures of Robinson Carusoe.
After becoming known as the sadistic “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity, Ernest Borgnine won his only Oscar in his lone nomination for playing lovesick butcher, Marty Pilletti, in Delbert Mann’s slice-of-life drama, Marty. Working off a script written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, Borgnine infused the everyman role with humor and heartache, as Marty is badgered from friends and his mother to get married or face a life of bachelorhood. But when he meets the equally lost Clara (Betsy Blair), Marty suddenly faces hostility from those same people who fear that they will lose his companionship. Borgnine won Best Actor over stiff competition that included James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, James Dean in East of Eden, Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm and Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Having enjoyed massive success on Broadway in the same role, Yul Brynner was catapulted to movie stardom in 1956 thanks to his performances in The Ten Commandments and the musical The King and I. But it was the latter film that became Brynner’s most famous, as he reprised his role as the oft-married King of Saim, who becomes charmed by an English widow (Deborah Kerr) newly arrived to tutor his many children. Though a clash of cultures ensues, both the king and the widow come to respect and even love one another. Brynner’s iconic performance earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor over James Dean in Giant, Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, Rock Hudson in Giant and Laurence Olivier in Richard III.
Before he was known as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, British actor Alec Guinness was an accomplished performer who earned the Oscar for his role in David Lean’s classic wartime epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Guinness played Colonel Nicholson, a British military officer who engages in a battle of wills with his opposite number (Sessue Hayakawa) inside a Japanese POW camp over the building of a bridge that will be used to transport munitions. Guinness’ turn as the obsessive, but principled Nicholson earned him his career’s sole Academy Award over Marlon Brando in Sayonara, Anthony Franciosa in A Hatful of Rain, Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution and Anthony Quinn in Wild Is the Wind.
In his one and only nomination of his career, British star David Niven won the Oscar for his performance in Delbert Mann’s underappreciated ensemble drama, Separate Tables, which focused on a group guests of a seaside hotel in postwar England making tenuous connections with each other despite their individual isolation. Niven played a retired military man who proclaims himself to be a war hero, only to find himself facing the prospect of his lies and deception being revealed by a local newspaper. Niven’s performance beat out the likes of Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones and Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea.
Another actor to win Oscar in his one and only try, Charlton Heston delivered a performance for the ages in William Wyler’s classic historical epic as the titular Judah Ben-Hur, a former prince exiled to slavery by a former childhood friend (Stephen Boyd) turned Roman tribune. Heston’s Ben-Hur transforms from a vengeance-minded slave to a man who finds forgiveness by witnessing the crucifixion of Christ (Claude Heater), and in the end feels his voice take the sword from his hand. Grand in every way imaginable, Ben-Hur earned Heston the Academy Award over Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man and James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.