5 Best Actors of the 1950s

For an actor (asexual term) to define an era they must in some way represent the culture of that time, transcending what we know to become larger than life. If they are not the people we know, they are the people we wish to be. So few have actually managed to do it. Over seven articles I am exploring the actors who best define their eras, the ten year period in which they became synonymous with their characters, who were representative of a time now gone past. We can in many ways place these performances and films in a time capsule and in one hundred years would understand exactly what the decade was about. They defined their time, they were who we wished we were, who we might want as friends, lovers, they gave us something to aspire towards. Here’s the list of top actors of 1950s.

1. John Wayne

John Wayne was a massive man, huge on the screen and came to personify what the American male wanted to be. He was big, he was tough and strong, tender and kind when he had to be. Men liked him and yet feared him, women wanted to be with him and protected by him. In the years after WWII, Wayne became what America needed, and what the men of America wished to be. For forty years Wayne roamed the movies screens, most of the time as the top box office draw in cinema. Usually his movies were westerns and in them we found he had a code of honor that incredibly he lived his life by as well. Wayne dominated the fifties with superb performances, the best of which The Searchers (1956) would earn him the best reviews of his life, but no Oscar, not even a nomination. 

As the towering, racist Ethan Edwards, he went to a place he had never gone before, deep into the heart of the psyche of the American west, when at war with the natives, they saw them as savages. In The Searchers (1956) it becomes clear throughout the film that Ethan is every bit as savage as the natives, and has more in common with them than the white men. Face to face with the niece he has been searching for seven years, he cannot kill her as he planned, for she is part of him, and he realizes he has at last found his humanity. Sweeping her into his massive arms he pulls her close to his chest and whispers, “Let’s go home Debbie”. The last shot of Ethan in the film has him outside, away from the rest of them, forever to wander. Wayne followed that with the perfect John Wayne performance in Rio Bravo (1956), portraying John T. Chance the local sherriff as a brave, stand alone sort of guy. American could count on John Wayne, and he took that role very seriously. He defined for many what the American male should be. Virile, strong, massive, kind, gentle, he was a man, he was America or at least who American wanted to be.

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2. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando was troubled, an outsider, not always in synch with others, but a hugely gifted actor who altered the course of American screen and stage acting with his work. Moving from the stage to film to recreate his role in the stunning A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), he was more realistic than any actor had ever been in a role before. Some critics stated he was so real you could all but smell him. 

In the first five years of his career, Brando was nominated four times for Best Actor, finally winning Best Actor for his superb performance in On the Waterfront (1954). Not content to portray roles he was right for, he challenged himself taking the plum role of Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), again stunning audiences and critics with his brilliant commanding performance. Off screen Brando marched to his own drummer, banging on bongo drums, chasing women (and men) and doing pretty much what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He despised the studio chiefs, he hated the fact their concern was always money and though he conquered the fifties, he fell off the radar in the sixties, only to return on the seventies. His impact on the art form was staggering, nothing was ever the same, and acting became all about being real, the truth. To this day, every actor working owes him a debt.

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3. Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor had been a teenage actress in the forties of uncommon beauty, but did she have the talent to go with that God-given beauty? She did indeed and worked on proving it through the fifties. It started with A Place in the Sun (1951) and ended with Suddenly Last Summer (1959) in which she displayed remarkable talents opposite stronger actors. In between she dazzled audiences with Raintree County (1957) and as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Her greatest was yet to come in the sixties, but she had begun to lay the path towards Oscar. Off screen she befriended, the troubled Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and married often and quickly. She was in many ways Hollywood incarnate in the fifties.

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4. Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was sex incarnate. The way she moved, the way she looked, the way she did everything was sexual, and as Hollywood became more and more comfortable with sexuality, Monroe came into her own. Typecast as a dumb blonde, she was nothing of the kind and trained at the Actors Studio where men took advantage of her gentle heart. A gifted comic, she learned to play the toughest role of all, that of Marilyn Monroe, and no one did it better. The best of her work came in the second half of the fifties, The Seven Year Itch (1955) and the splendid Some Like It Hot (1959). She understood how the camera loved her, and played to it with all her strengths. Her weaknesses were left for off the screen, where she spiralled into mental illness and drug addiction, used by one man after another, her fragile spirit finally broken, left to be immortal on film.

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5. James Dean

James Dean made just three films but he burned so very bright in each. In death he became immortal, a symbol of misunderstood youth, a rebel without a cause. Hollywood realized they had an untapped market, the teen movie, and as drive ins popped up around North America, they targeted that audience. James Dean was an actor of furious energy and in his three films portrayed the misunderstood rebellious youth. Accused of imitating Brando, the accusations are just, and only in his final film, in a supporting role did he really display the talent, and sadly the limitations he possessed. His death made him immortal, forever young, symbol of fifties youth, slowly growing aware of adulthood, learning all was not as it seemed with those older than he.

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