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In 1954, the Australian journalist and author George Johnston wrote a well-researched series of biographical articles on Finch, his life, and his work, which appeared in the Sydney Sun-Herald on four consecutive Sundays, which were certainly the first detailed account of Finch's life to be published. Finch later provided the inspiration for the character Archie Calverton in Johnston's novel, Clean Straw for Nothing.
Finch's film roles increased in size and prestige through the early 1950s. For Walt Disney he played the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952). He was given two good roles in films from Alexander Korda: as Richard D'Oyly Carte in The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), and as a priest in The Heart of the Matter (1953), from the Graham Greene novel.
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.
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.
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.
George gained custody of Peter, who was taken from his biological mother and brought up by his adoptive paternal grandmother, Laura Finch (formerly Black) in Vaucresson, France. In 1925 Laura took Peter with her to Adyar, a theosophical community near Madras, India, for a number of months, and the young boy lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery. Undoubtedly, as a result of his childhood contact with Buddhism, Finch always claimed to be a Buddhist. He is reported to have said: "I think a man dying on a cross is a ghastly symbol for a religion. And I think a man sitting under a bo tree and becoming enlightened is a beautiful one."
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.