There’s nothing like the Golden Age of Hollywood – and the starlets who defined the decade. In the 1950s, Tinsel Town was marked with an air of glamour that has since been unmatched. These gorgeous starlets were American royalty (and in some cases literal royalty) and graced headlines for better and for worse. Despite their major successes and million dollar paychecks, the stunning starlets of the 1950s all grappled with the dark side of fame. In some cases, it ruined them.
Dorothy Dandridge’s legendary nomination
Image credit: Carmen Jones
In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black actress nominated to receive an Academy Award for a leading role. Though she didn’t win, her work in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones made history. She was featured on the cover of Life and got the chance to visit the Cannes Film Festival, virtually unheard of successes for a black actress at the time.
Elizabeth Taylor’s rise to fame
Image credit: Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor, who was known for her striking violet eyes, blossomed into a Hollywood icon in the 1950s, but she got her start as a child star a decade prior. At the age of 10, she signed a contract with Universal Studios and became a bona fide movie star when her flick National Velvet (1944) pulled in over $4 million. She was only twelve years old.
Taylor didn’t achieve mainstream success until she turned eighteen and starred in Father of the Bride (1950). The actress went on to add a number of critically acclaimed Blockbusters hits like Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) to her credits. Unfortunately, her career was marred by tragedy and scandal.
The scandal that kept Elizabeth Taylor in the spotlight
Image Credit: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Taylor’s massive fame was bolstered by a string of scandals and personal tragedies. The star was married eight times throughout her lifetime, and juicy details about her personal affairs regularly graced headlines (and honestly still do even years after her death).
After Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd, tragically died in a plane crash in 1958, she found herself in the arms of his close friend Eddie Fisher. Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who was widely known as Taylor’s very best friend. Taylor and Fisher married in 1959 and divorced five years later. The affair was one of the biggest celebrity relationship scandals of the 1950s, but Taylor and Reynolds eventually reconciled years later after they both remarried.
Singing in the rain with Debbie Reynolds
Image credit: Singing in the Rain
Debbie Reynolds, who was regularly cast as a wholesome, girl-next-door beauty, landed a contract with MGM after she won a beauty contest at age sixteen. Though she was a talented actress, she became a dancer after playing across Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). After the film found critical success, Reynolds was cast in a string of musicals including The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) and Athena (1954). By 1957, she found herself at No. 1 on the pop charts with her ballad “Tammy” from Tammy and the Bachelor.
Despite her success, Reynolds struggled with betrayal and tabloid gossip. That’s just what happens when your best friend is considered the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood and happens to be having an affair with your husband.
Sometimes a friendship is worth more
Image credit: Singing in the Rain
As it turns out, Frank Sinatra was the one to warn Reynolds about Eddie Fisher. After starring alongside Reynolds in The Tender Trap, Sinatra urged her not to get married to the actor-singer because he felt like singers weren’t faithful (and as one of the greatest singers of all time, Sinatra would know.) Still, Reynolds didn’t heed the advice, and Sinatra’s prophecy came true. Fisher found himself embroiled in an affair with Reynold’s best friend Elizabeth Taylor.
Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor were at odds for years over the affair. There’s nothing like boy problems to tear best friends apart, but they eventually buried the hatchet. Why? Fisher wasn’t worth it.
“You have to look at what life is all about, and is it worth it? And, is he worth it?” Reynolds said. “The friendship was perhaps worth more.”
Marilyn Monroe was the ’50s biggest sex symbol
Image Credit: There’s No Business Like Show Business
Marilyn Monroe was undeniably the biggest sex symbol of the 1950s. The actress was known for her curvy figure and bleach blonde hair. Even today, long after her death, Monroe is an American icon. The actress even launched her career with her patented brand of Hollywood drama – she divorced her husband Jim Daugherty, who she married as a teenager, the same year she signed her contract. Then, she bleached her hair and adopted her famous stage name.
In 1950, Monroe received critical acclaim for her supporting role in The Asphalt Jungle. She eventually nabbed leading roles in Niagara (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1955). Though her sexy hourglass figure set her apart from other stars of the generation, her success was cut short because of tragedy.
Monroe’s struggles with fame
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Monroe always struggled in the spotlight and was chronically insecure about her acting abilities. Her anxiety often made her physically ill on set and she was frequently late, which gave her a poor reputation among co-stars and directors. Couple this with a short, nine-month marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, and things began to spiral for the actress.
Monroe managed to survive the ’50s despite struggling with depression and substance abuse. Unfortunately, her life was cut short in 1962 just a few months after famously singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy. At the age of 36, Monroe tragically overdosed on sleeping pills. Ex-husband DiMaggio had flowers delivered to her grave for the next 20 years.
Grace Kelly’s path to an Academy Award was short
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Grace Kelly was known as one of the most beautiful women to ever arrive in Hollywood, but her intense work ethic is what got her there. She moved to New York City as a teenager to pursue acting and modeling while studying at the America Academy of the Dramatic Arts. After failing to make it on Broadway, she moved to Hollywood where she went on to become a full-fledged icon.
After launching her film career with Fourteen Hours (1951) and High Noon (1952), the star appeared across Clark Gable in Mogambo (1953). The film launched her into both stardom and scandal. She won her first Academy Award and a Golden Globe which garnered her a seven-year contract with MGM. She also had an affair with Clark Gable, which she shrugged off.
“What else is there to do if you’re alone in a tent in Africa with Clark Gable?” she scandalously claimed.
Grace Kelly was living a real-life fairytale
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Grace Kelly wasn’t just one of the most acclaimed actresses in the world. She was an actual princess. The starlet became Princess of Monaco in 1956 after marrying Prince Rainer III (not far off to the type of romance we’ve seen with Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry.) At the time, she was one of the highest-paid actresses in the world.
Kelly met Prince Rainier III during a photoshoot in Cannes. He needed a bride because with no heir, Monaco would become part of France. They married in 1956, and she abandoned her acting career and gave up her American citizenship, while her award-winning films were banned in Monaco.
Grace Kelly’s fairytale ended in tragedy
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Unlike most of her peers, this ’50s starlet didn’t find herself embroiled in scandals or drug abuse. She lived a life of high society and class. Instead, her death was a tragic accident. Kelly was driving with her daughter Stephanie along the cliffs of southern France when she had a stroke. Her vehicle spun out of control and she plunged off one of the cliffs. Miraculously, Princess Stephanie survived, but her mother wasn’t as lucky.
After spending 24 hours in a coma, Kelly was taken off life support. She passed away at the age of 52. Stephanie only had a broken vertebra.
Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday
Image Credit: Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn started her career on Broadway when she starred in Gigi. Two years later, the starlet became a household name with her film Roman Holiday (1954), for which she won an Academy Award and Golden Globe. That same year, she also won a Tony for her theater work.
After Roman Holiday, her career as star-status was set in stone. She went on to star in some of the ’50s biggest blockbusters including Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Funny Face. She also became one of fashion’s most heralded style icons. We can thank the star for our pants — literally. In an era where skirts and dresses were the go-to for a girl, Hepburn championed sleek, tailored cigarette pants (a flattering look we still wear today).
Audrey Hepburn: A war hero?
Image Credit: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels and spent most of her childhood at boarding school in England. The years during World War II were the hardest. Her family moved to Holland and Nazis invaded the country when she was eleven years old. As a result, Hepburn almost starved to death and survived by eating nettles and tulip bulbs. According to The New York Times, she may have been a war hero.
The Times reports that Hepburn and her family joined the resistance in Nazi-occupied Holland. She helped deliver important messages. It’s possible that this experience sparked her deep dedication to humanitarianism.
Shirley MacLaine racked up awards
Image credit: The Trouble With Harry
Shirley MacLaine got her start in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955) and ended up having a decades-long career in film, TV and publishing. That’s right: the starlet had brains and authored several books throughout her lengthy time in Hollywood.
Three years after her 1955 debut, MacLaine received her first Oscar nomination for Some Came Running, a war drama starring Frank Sinatra. She was nominated six different times before bringing home the gold for Terms of Endearment. Throughout her career, she’s won five Golden Globes, an Emmy and two BAFTA awards. She also received an AFI Life Achievement Award, the highest honor an actress can get from the American Film Institute.
Jayne Mansfield struggled to gain fame
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Jayne Mansfield had to claw her way to the top. Her very first attempts to launch an acting career were unsuccessful. She had disastrous auditions for both Paramount and Warner Bros. and was forced to work at a movie theater in order to make ends meet. In the 1950s, her inherent sexiness and bombshell figure was considered “too sexy” for audiences and her modeling career was stifled. She eventually landed a small part in three 1955 films: Pete Kelly’s Blues, Hell on Frisco Bay and Illegal, and signed a contract with Warner Bros.
She also caused quite a stir for a few wardrobe mishaps, including one where her top fell off while swimming in a pool surrounded by paparazzi and journalists. Whoops!
Mansfield was better known for her photos
Image Credit: The Girl Can’t Help It
Mansfield did win a Golden Globe for the 1957 hit The Girl Can’t Help It. Other than that, her films didn’t garner a whole lot of critical acclaim. Instead, Mansfield was better known for her pictures in a way that makes it seem like she was a celebrity simply for being a celebrity. In just nine months, Mansfield’s face appeared in 2,500 newspapers. She also stripped down for various nude shoots in Playboy throughout the 1950s.
Mansfield’s career and look rivaled Marilyn Monroe to the point that Monroe wished she could sue the actress for copying her look. Both ended up suffering equally tragic fates.
Mansfield’s fatal car crash created real change
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Mansfield was 34-years-old when she tragically passed away. She was traveling to New Orleans, Louisiana for a morning TV interview after performing in a Mississippi nightclub. The star had her three children in the back of the car when it rounded a curve and went under a tractor-trailer at around 2 a.m. The truck was allegedly obscured by pesticide spray and all three of the passengers in the front seat died. Her children survived the crash.
The incident was so tragic that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created new regulations. Tractor-trailers are now required to have a rear under guard so smaller cars can’t slide underneath if they crash.
Kim Novak’s rise to fame
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Kim Novak launched her career in 1954 when she was just 21-years-old. It was near-instant fame for the stunning starlet who appeared well beyond her years because of her poise. By 1955, she had a string of films, including 5 Against The House, and The Man with the Golden Arm and Picnic, which would be regarded as her breakout role. She landed a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Newcomer” because of her early work.
Novak’s career credits are like a who’s who in old Hollywood glamour. She worked with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey and was cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo.
Natalie Wood was a rebel without a cause
In the 1950s, Natalie Wood was America’s sweetheart. At the ripe age of sixteen, she got her career-defining moment playing the girlfriend of a troubled teen outsider (who just so happened to be James Dean.) She co-starred alongside the famed actor in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which landed her an Academy Award nomination.
While most actors smile behind the frustration, Wood actually spoke out about being forced to perform in films she didn’t believe in. Most notably, she felt miscast as a white teen abducted and raised by Native Americans in The Searchers.
She was cast in a musical but couldn’t sing
Image credit: West Side Story
From the get-go, Natalie Wood was starring in major productions. Her first starring role was in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Couple that with a James Dean flick and she had it made. That doesn’t mean she was up to the task all of the time.
In the ’60s, Wood was a seasoned star. She landed a role in the iconic musical West Side Story and played a woman falling in love with a boy from the wrong side of town. It was a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, Wood didn’t have the pipes to handle the musical numbers. Though she did the dancing and acting, her singing was overdubbed by Broadway performer Marni Nixon.
Natalie Wood’s death was controversial
Natalie Wood’s death was surrounded by a lot of controversies. The actress passed away in 1981 on a trip with husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. The couple was boating to California’s Catalina Island, and things apparently got heated. Wagner allegedly suspected an affair between Walken and Wood. He got heated and broke a bottle. He continued to argue with his wife.
Mysteriously, Wood disappeared later that evening. Wagner reported her missing and her body was discovered floating in the water off Catalina Island the next morning. Though her death was ruled an accident, there was much tabloid speculation.