So many great actresses of the 1950s are to this day looked upon as symbols of strength, grace, and beauty, as they were at the time. They’re closely associated with a certain hard-to-describe style and sparkle that were unique to them during the decade. Of course, they also contributed their gifts to some of the most beloved classic films in American movie history.
We’re well aware that we’ve left off some amazing leading ladies of the decade, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Below are 10 iconic actresses who made a major mark on the film industry—and the public—in the ’50s.
Also, if you’re a fan of old films, also check out our list of 30 popular movies from the fifties.
Iconic ’50s Film Actresses
It seems absurd to try to rank these amazingly talented, beautiful women who each gave us so many classic film treasures in the fifties. So we’ll just stick with listing them by alphabetical order.
- Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965): Dandridge’s immense talent and determination helped her pave the way as a black actress at a time when it was notoriously difficult to make it as one. Before her career was tragically cut short by her death in 1965, she made her mark through the 1950s starring in films like Bright Road, Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, Tamango, The Decks Ran Red, and Porgy and Bess.
- Doris Day (1922- ): Known equally as a singer and an actress, Day’s career has been quite prolific. In the 20 years from 1948 to 1968, she appeared in at least one film every year, and through most of the ’50s, she appeared in multiple movies annually. To name just some of the fifties films in which she starred, there’s Young Man with a Horn, Tea for Two, The West Point Story, Storm Warning, Lullabye of Broadway, On Moonlight Bay, April in Paris, Calamity Jane, Young at Heart, Love Me or Leave Me, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Teacher’s Pet, and Pillow Talk.
- Susan Hayward (1917-1975): Hayward is the only actress on our list who had leading film roles as far back as the 1930s. So many of her iconic roles were in the fifties, though, and it’s impossible not to think of her when considering legendary actresses from the decade. Some of her major appearances included I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, Rawhide, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, David and Bathsheba, With a Song in My Heart, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Lusty Men, The President’s Lady, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, and I Want to Live!
- Grace Kelly (1929-1982): Unfortunately for film fans, her short acting career ended at the young age of 26 when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. However, she’d already established herself as one of the great leading ladies of the silver screen with 1950s productions like High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Country Girl, To Catch a Thief, and High Society.
- Jayne Mansfield (1933-1967): Mansfield was arguably the biggest sex symbol from the big screen in the 1950s (and largely responsible for popularizing the ’50s fad of wearing conical bras). Before her far-too-early death in a car accident, she made a name for herself in the fifties with top billing in movies like Female Jungle, The Girl Can’t Help It, The Wayward Bus, The Burglar, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Kiss Them for Me, and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.
- Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962): Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, she’s probably the most internationally famous actress and sex symbol of the 1950s. Yet another on the list whose life was tragically cut short, some notable starring roles from the decade were in Monkey Business, Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The 7 Year Itch, Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, and Some Like It Hot.
- Kim Novak (1933- ): She got her start in film with a lead role in 1954’s Pushover, and her poise and undeniable gift led people to take her as years older than she was (21 at the time of Pushover). That led to a trend of matching her with older leading men. Some other films she had starring roles in during the ’50s included Picnic, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Eddy Duchin Story, Pal Joey, Vertigo, Bell Book and Candle, and Middle of the Night.
- Thelma Ritter (1902-1969): The oldest woman on our list, Ritter worked in radio in the 1940s and became a film star in the 1950s when she was already in her fifties. She became famous as the older leading lady, often starring with others found here. Some of her lead and prominent supporting roles in the 1950s were in Perfect Strangers, As Young as You Feel, The Model and the Marriage Broker, With a Song in My Heart, Titanic, Pickup on South Street, Rear Window, Daddy Long Legs, The Proud and Profane, A Hole in the Head, and Pillow Talk.
- Jane Russell (1921-2011): She first became famous from Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, which focused heavily on highlighting Russell’s physical assets. It took 5 years, from filming in 1941 to general release in 1946, for the movie to get past all the censorship checks back then. In the 1950s, she established herself as one of the era’s great actresses in films like His Kind of Woman, The Las Vegas Story, Macao, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Foxfire, The Tall Men, and The Revolt of Mamie Stover.
- Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011): An international symbol of elegance and beauty, Taylor is widely considered the last major star from the classic Hollywood Golden Age studio system that started declining in the late ’40s. With a prolific film career spanning seven decades, just some of the noteworthy movies she had top billing in during the 1950s include Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Ivanhoe, Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer.