During this time, Finch continued to appear on stage in various productions while under contract to Olivier. Finch's closeness to the Olivier family led to an affair with Olivier's beautiful but increasingly unstable wife, Vivien Leigh, which began in 1948, and continued on and off for several years, ultimately falling apart due to her deteriorating mental condition.
However, he was then cast as an Australian soldier in A Town Like Alice (1956), which became the third most popular film at the British box office in 1956 and won Finch a BAFTA for Best Actor. He followed it with The Battle of the River Plate (1956), playing Captain Hans Langsdorff. This was also successful financially and British exhibitors voted Finch the seventh most popular British star at the box office for 1956.
In 1953 he appeared in his first Hollywood movie, Elephant Walk (1954), shot in Ceylon and Los Angeles. The circumstances of production were turbulent; filming started with Vivien Leigh in the lead but she had a nervous breakdown during production and had to be replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. The experience helped sour Finch on a Hollywood career and he would only work occasionally there for the rest of his career.
Finch co-wrote and directed an award-winning short film, The Day (1960) and announced plans to direct a feature but it did not eventuate. He won his third BAFTA for Best Actor for No Love for Johnnie (1961), although like Oscar Wilde, the film lost money. He was originally chosen to play Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) and filmed scenes in London, but when the film was postponed he withdrew; the role was recast with Rex Harrison.
Finch was nominated for an Oscar for Network and went on to posthumously win the award, which was accepted by his widow, Eletha Finch. Although James Dean, Spencer Tracy and Massimo Troisi were also posthumously nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Finch was the first actor to have won the award posthumously, as well as the first Australian actor to win a Best Actor award. He was the only posthumous winner of an Oscar in an acting category until fellow Australian Heath Ledger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2009; there were many earlier posthumous Oscar winners in non-acting categories. Finch also won five Best Actor awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), including one for Network.
Finch returned to Australia to make The Shiralee (1957), one of his favourite parts, and the tenth most popular movie at the British box office that year. He followed it with another Australian story, the bushranger tale Robbery Under Arms (1957), which did less well. However exhibitors still voted Finch the third most popular British star of 1957, and the fifth most popular overall, regardless of nationality.
He had a small role as an Australian prisoner of war in The Wooden Horse (1950), the third most popular film at the British box office in 1950. His performance as a Pole in Daphne Laureola led to his casting as a Polish soldier in The Miniver Story, the sequel to the wartime morale boosting film Mrs. Miniver; unlike its predecessor, it was poorly received critically.
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