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.
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We all say we're going to quit occasionally. I'd like to have been more adventurous in my career. But it's a fascinating and not ignoble profession. No one lives more lives than the actor. Movie making is like geometry and I hated maths. But this kind of jigsaw I relish. When I played Lord Nelson I worked the poop deck in his uniform. I got extraordinary shivers. Sometimes I felt like I was staring at my own coffin. I touched that character. There lies the madness. You can't fake it.
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'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.
He was soon cast in his first British movie, playing a murderous actor in Train of Events (1949). Critic C. A. Lejeune praised his work in the London Observer commenting that he "adds good cheekbones to a quick intelligence and is likely to become a cult, I fear." The Scotsman said "he should be regarded as one of the most hopeful recruits to the British screen."
Finch was married three times. In 1943, he married Romanian-born French ballerina Tamara Tchinarova; they worked together on a number of films. They had a daughter, Anita, born in 1950. They divorced in 1959, after she discovered his affair with actress Vivien Leigh in California. He then married South African-born actress Yolande Turner (née Yolande Eileen Turnbull); they had two children together, Samantha and Charles Peter. During their marriage, Finch had an affair with the singer Shirley Bassey. Bassey had a daughter, also named Samantha, born in 1963; Bassey's husband at the time, the openly gay film producer Kenneth Hume, believed that Finch was her biological father. Finch and Turner divorced in 1965. In 1972 Finch married Mavis "Eletha" Barrett, who was known as Eletha Finch. They had a daughter together, Diana.