As with their male counterparts, actresses in the 1950s tackled more complex roles that delved into darker and more risque territory. Many of the winners in the decade were relative newcomers who bested more established and well-known nominees, thus ushering in a new generation of actresses. Whether playing faded Southern Belles, long-suffering wives or death row inmates, they delivered some of classic Hollywood's finest performances.
Bette Davis may have given the most dynamic performance of the year and Gloria Swanson the most iconic, but it was Judy Holliday who took home Oscar for her role as Billie Dawn, a none-too-bright showgirl mistress of a crass tycoon (Broderick Crawford). Brought to Washington, D.C, her paramour becomes reviled by her lack of manners and hires a down-and-out journalist (William Holden) to teach her some class. Directed by George Cukor, Born Yesterday gave Holliday her most memorable performance, which won the Oscar over Davis in All About Eve, Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Anne Baxter in All About Eve and Eleanor Parker in Caged.
Another great year for the Best Actress category, Oscar faced a tough decision between two spectacular performances and could have gone either way. But as it turned out, Vivien Leigh won her second Academy Award in as many tries for her leading turn as faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois who clashes with Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), the brutish husband of her pregnant sister (Kim Hunter), in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play. Leigh straddled the line between sanity until Stanley finally pushes her over the edge, leaving no doubt that this was the finest performance of her career. She won the Oscar over an equally deserving Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, Eleanor Parker in Detective Story, Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun and Jane Wyman in The Blue Veil.
Following two consecutive awards featuring powerhouse performances, Oscar took a bit of break in 1952 when Shirley Booth won for recreating a role she originated on Broadway. Adapted from the William Inge play, Come Back, Little Sheba featured Booth as a sweet-natured, but rather boring housewife whose alcoholic husband (Burt Lancaster) would love nothing more than to cast her aside for their young curvaceous new border (Terry Moore). Booth delivered a strong performance, though it’s doubtful she would have won in either the previous two years. Still she managed to beat out Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, Bette Davis in The Star, Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding and Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart.
A relative unknown, Audrey Hepburn was catapulted to stardom after playing a princes who seeks adventure and anonymity in William Wyler’s famed romantic comedy. While on a diplomatic visit to Rome, Hepburn’s Princess Anne escapes the drudgery of royalty and travels the city incognito, where she meets an American journalist (Gregory Peck) who smells a story after recognizing her. Of course, the two fall in love, and so too did audiences with the irresistible Hepburn, who won her career’s only Academy Award for Best Actress over Leslie Caron in Lili, Ava Gardner in Mogambo, Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity and Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue.
Known for her glamour and elegance both has a Hollywood star and the Queen of Monaco, Grace Kelly adopted a frumpy look complete with a threadbare sweater and plain dresses to play the dedicated, but long-suffering wife of an alcoholic has-been actor (Bing Crosby) struggling one last time to resurrect his career. Kelly’s win for her only Oscar in her sole nomination for Best Actress was something of a shock since most considered Judy Garland – herself struggling to revive her own career – a lock for A Star Is Born. But nothing is ever certain when it comes to the Academy Awards and Kelly beat out Garland as well as the previous year’s winner Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession, and Dorothy Dandridge in Cameron Jones, who became the first African-American woman to receive a nomination in the category.
A relative newcomer, Anna Magnani delivered a emotionally charged performance that triumphed over better known stars and gave the actress her one and only Academy Award. Based on a lesser Tennessee Williams play, Magnani played a Sicilian woman living in the Deep South mourning the loss of her beloved husband, only to discover he was having an affair. The news throws her into a tailspin, but soon she meets a truck driver (Burt Lancaster) who engages her in romance. Magnani pulled all the stops in this powerhouse performance and deservedly won the Oscar over Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, Jennifer Jones in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody.
Having suffered indignity due to her scandalous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman returned from exile with a triumphant performance as a would-be suicide and amnesia victim saved by a Russian expatriate (Yul Brynner) who tries to pass her off as Princess Anastasia, the long-lost daughter of the late czar. Bergman was simply amazing in the role, but was still smarting from her scandal and had friend Cary Grant accept the award on her behalf. Bergman won over strong competition that included Carroll Baker in Baby Doll, Katharine Hepburn in The Rainmaker, Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed and Deborah Kerr in The King and I.
Another relative newcomer who won Oscar in her first try, Joanne Woodward was stellar as a young Georgia housewife suffering from multiple personality disorder. Because the film was based on a real-life woman, though her true identity wasn’t revealed for almost 20 years, added to Woodward’s groundbreaking performance as a woman who at once was a mild housewife, wild party girl and stately matron. Woodward earned the Oscar over perpetual nominee Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Anna Magnani in Wild Is the Wind, Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree Country and Lana Turner in Peyton Place.
After four unsuccessful tries, Susan Hayward finally won the Oscar for Best Actress in her fifth and final nomination. In Robert Wise’s grim and intense dramatization of the life of Barbara Graham, the third woman to ever be executed by the gas chamber in California, Hayward delivered an extraordinary performance as a woman caught up in drugs, prostitution and finally murder. Hayward’s powerful turn won her the Academy Award over oft-nominated Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables, Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running, Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A French actress who bested her American counterparts in her first-ever nomination, Simone Signoret delivered a top-notch performance in Jack Clayton’s controversial melodrama. Though tame by today’s standards, the film’s sexual content and frank portrayal of infidelity earned condemnation, but also made it a hit. Signoret played the troubled mistress of a social climber (Laurence Harvey) who takes her romance seriously, enough so that she comes to a tragic end after he impregnates his wealthy boss’ daughter (Heather Sears). Signoret won the Oscar over a quartet of A-list stars like Doris Day in Pillow Talk, Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer and Elizabeth Taylor in the same film.