Best Actress Oscar Winners of the 1950s

Newcomers, Powerhouse Divas and Stage Actresses

Actresses new to the silver screen did well among the Best Actress Oscar winners of the 1950s, often beating out established actresses in great roles. As usual, the academy tended to favor women in big, juicy dramatic roles over those in comedies and romances, no matter their caliber or public appeal. In a decade filled with strong roles for women, some great actresses were never recognized.

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1950 Best Actress - Judy Holliday in ‘Born Yesterday’

Born Yesterday
Born Yesterday. Columbia Pictures

One of the hottest races in Oscar history brought newcomer Judy Holliday her first and only Academy award, playing the girlfriend of a corrupt pol in the charming Born Yesterday, a rare win for a comic role. Bette Davis might have won for her brilliant role in All About Eve, the year’s Best Picture, but votes were siphoned off by her costar Anne Baxter, also nominated. Gloria Swanson was equally deserving for her courageous out-of-retirement turn as a faded silent screen star in the noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Eleanor Parker rounded out the nominations in the inferior Caged, and Oscar snubbed Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib.

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1951 Best Actress - Vivian Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire. Warner Brothers

Two powerhouse actresses in truly great films collided in 1951, with Vivian Leigh’s ruined southern belle in Streetcar winning out over Katharine Hepburn’s indomitable spinster in The African Queen. (I’d have given the award to Hepburn, but it was a tough call.) Trailing far behind the two battling divas in the nominations were Shelley Winters as a pregnant factory worker in the melodrama A Place in the Sun, Jane Wyman as a noble nanny in The Blue Veil, and Eleanor Parker as a wife hiding a secret in Detective Story.

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1952 Best Actress - Shirley Booth in ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’

Come Back, Little Sheba
Come Back, Little Sheba. Paramount

Newcomer Shirley Booth won for the role she created on stage of a dowdy, frumpy housewife whose husband longs to be rid of her in William Inge's bleak play. Also nominated were Julie Harris, recreating her stage role as the young girl in The Member of the Wedding; Bette Davis, again playing a fading actress in The Star; Joan Crawford with her final nomination as a playwright in Sudden Fear; and Susan Hayward in the biopic of World War II entertainer Jane Froman, With a Song in My Heart. Oscar ignored a few serious divas in 1952: Maureen O’Hara’s feisty Irishwoman in The Quiet Man; Grace Kelly's Quaker wife in High Noon; and Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious.

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1953 Best Actress - Audrey Hepburn in 'Roman Holiday'

Roman Holiday
Roman Holiday. Paramount

Lovely Audrey Hepburn took the honors as a rebellious princess escaping her duties and tooling around on a Vespa in the beloved romance Roman Holiday. She knocked out Deborah Kerr’s steamy performance in the Hawaiian surf in From Here to Eternity, the year’s Best Picture, and adorable French actress Leslie Caron in the bittersweet musical Lili. Also defeated were gorgeous Ava Gardner in the racy tale of a love triangle, Mogambo, and Maggie MacNamara in The Moon is Blue. Oscar failed to nominate costars Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell for their crowd-pleasing escapades in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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1954 Best Actress - Grace Kelly in 'The Country Girl'

The Country Girl
The Country Girl. Paramount

The luminous Kelly played against type as a the dowdy, bitter wife of an alcoholic singer, certainly not her best role. She bested Judy Garland’s heartbreaking comeback turn as the wife of a fading, alcoholic actor in a remake of a A Star is Born, as well as the first black woman to be nominated for Best Actress, Dorothy Dandridge as factory worker Carmen Jones. Also nominated were Jane Wyman, playing a blind woman in the soap opera Magnificent Obsession, and Audrey Hepburn, as the chauffeur’s daughter in Sabrina. Kelly should have been nominated as the plucky fashion editor in Rear Window, and Oscar ought to have given a nod to Judy Holliday for the delightful It Should Happen to You.

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1955 Best Actress - Anna Magnani in 'The Rose Tattoo'

The Rose Tattoo
The Rose Tattoo. Paramount

A relative newcomer again beat veteran actresses with multiple past nominations, as Magnani won for her sultry widow tempting a dim truck driver in The Rose Tattoo. Katharine Hepburn was more deserving as a spinster having a fling with a gorgeous Italian in Summertime, her sixth of 12 career nominations. Susan Hayward lost her fourth bid as an alcoholic singer in I’ll Cry Tomorrow; Eleanor Parker lost her third of three failed bids in the biopic of an Australian opera singer, Interrupted Melody; and Jennifer Jones lost the last of her five nominations as a doctor in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Oscar snubbed Doris Day as a singer with a gangster husband in Love Me or Leave Me.

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1956 Best Actress - Ingrid Bergman in 'Anastasia'

Anastasia. 20th Century Fox

Bergman came galloping back to the Oscars some years after her scandalous affair with director Roberto Rosselini damaged her career. She won for her role as a guttersnipe trained to masquerade as the missing Russian princess. She beat Katharine Hepburn’s poignant outing (again as a spinster) in The Rainmaker; Deborah Kerr as the English teacher in the popular musical The King and I; Nancy Kelly recreating her stage role as the mother of a sociopathic tot in The Bad Seed; and Carroll Baker in the creepy Tennessee Williams story Baby Doll. Oscar snubbed Doris Day again in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Marilyn Monroe’s touching turn in Bus Stop.

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1957 Best Actress - Joanne Woodward in ‘The Three Faces of Eve’

The Three Faces of Eve
The Three Faces of Eve. 20th Century Fox

A newcomer won again in 1957: elegant Joanne Woodward with her extraordinary portrayal of a real-life woman with multiple personalities. Her compelling performance bested Elizabeth Taylor in the film of the bestselling Southern novel Raintree County, and Anna Magnani as a mail-order bride in Wild is the Wind. Lana Turner lost her first and only nomination as a sexually-frustrated widow in the soaper Peyton Place, and lovely Deborah Kerr lost her fourth of six failed career nominations as a shipwrecked nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Oscar unjustly bypassed the superb Marlene Dietrich for her title role in Witness for the Prosecution.

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1958 Best Actress - Susan Hayward in 'I Want to Live'

I Want to Live
I Want to Live. United Artists

Hayward finally won her fifth nomination, as a woman on death row in San Quentin. She was good, but for my money, Rosalind Russell’s irresistible Auntie Mame should have won. Poor Deborah Kerr lost her fifth nomination, as a lonely spinster in love with a retired military blowhard in Separate Tables; Elizabeth Taylor lost as the sexually ravenous Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Shirley MacLaine lost her first nod, as a working girl in Some Came Running. The snubs were rampant -- no nod for Kim Novak in, essentially, a dual role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; and Ingrid Bergman was ignored for both Indiscreet and Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

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1959 Best Actress - Simone Signoret in ‘Room at the Top’

Room at the Top
Room at the Top. Remus

Frenchwoman Signoret won as the victimized mistress of a manipulative social climber in the British film Room at the Top, defeating Audrey Hepburn turning her back on her vows in A Nun’s Story. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor may have canceled each other out, both nominated for the controversial Suddenly Last Summer, a bizarre Tennessee Williams story. Doris Day received her first and only nomination for Pillow Talk, the first in her popular series of light-hearted romances with costar Rock Hudson. Unforgivably, Oscar snubbed Marilyn Monroe for her defining role as Sugar in Some Like it Hot, along with Lee Remick as a nasty little tart in Anatomy of a Murder.