In this article we will look at famous British Oscar winners all the way back to when the award ceremony first began in the 1920s.
The Academy Award’s. Possibly the most coveted award by the actors and stars of the silver screen. The Oscars, as they are more commonly known, started life in 1929 in California. At that time the ceremony was held as a private function at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Next year in 1930, it was broadcast on the radio, and hit television screens in 1953. The award ceremony has grown over the years to become a star-studded event. What began as a 15-minute ceremony has blossomed into one of the most, if not the most important event on the film actors’ calendar.
Each year the most notable names in the entertainment industry put on their best outfits. Walking the red carpet to attend the prestigious ceremony. Actors, directors, technicians, and artists all attend the occasion, in the hopes of winning the high honor of an Academy Award.
Britain has had its share of talented performers over years and many of those names have been the recipient of an award.
Starting from the beginning and working through years we will list British Oscar winners that have received the award. These actors and actresses are British.
That includes British – American, or British – South African, if they were born in Britain they have been included on this list.
Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here are the winners in the category of Best Actor and Best Actress and our complete list of British Oscar Winners.
George Arliss – 1930
(1st British Oscar Winner)
George Arliss is the first on our list of British Oscar winners. He originally acted on stage before moving to the big screen. He made the transition from stage, to screen, to the ‘talkies’. A move that proved to be well advised. George won an Oscar for the film ‘Disraeli’ that was released in the previous year.
Charles Laughton – 1933
Movie: King Henry VIII of England
Charles Laughton was our 2 on the list of British Oscar winners. He was born in the coastal town of Scarborough, UK and began his career performing on stage. He trained at RADA in London and to gained recognition for his performance in Shakespeare productions.
His film career showed his broad range of talents with Laughton performing roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Henry VIII, King of England, for which he won the 1933 Oscar for best actor.
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Victor McLaglen – 1935
Movie: The Informer
Born in the East End, though claiming to be born in Kent, Victor McLagen, was one of 10 siblings. He left home at 14 and joined the British Army, however, he was dismissed when they found out his true age. He moved to Canada at 18 and for a time was a wrestler and heavyweight boxer.
Victor was discovered by a film producer that needed an actor who could play a boxer. Though he had never acted in his life Maglen got the part after he auditioned. He became one of our early British Oscar Winners for The Informaer and had a successful film career all the way up til 1957.
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Robert Donat -1939
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Robert Donat made just 20 films in total and only 1 in Hollywood. Severe asthma prevented him from doing more. He made a notable appearance in The Count of Monte Cristo, The 39 steps, and Goodbye Mr. Chips, winning the Academy Award for his performance as a schoolmaster.
Robert also appeared on the theatre stage for many productions before moving to Cyprus in 1950 for his health.
Vivien Leigh – 1939
Movie: Gone with the Wind
Vivien Leigh was born in British India to British parents and sent to school in London. She was removed after a while to travel with her parents around Europe. Mainly France and Italy.
They returned to England in 1931 when Vivien expressed her wish to be an actress. Her father enrolled her in the Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Arts. Her first Acadamy Award was for Gone with the Wind starring opposite Clark Gable.
Joan Fontaine – 1941
Joan Fontaine was born in Tokyo to British parents. Operating under her stage name of ‘Fontaine’ Joan’s real surname was ‘de Havilland’ and she was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland. There were rumours that their mother favoured Olivia and did not want Joan using the family name. Joan tried several names before settling on ‘Fontaine’.
She won the Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ playing opposite Cary Grant in the psychological thriller. Joan and her sister Olivia are the only 2 siblings to win the award and the only 2 British-sister Oscar winners. The sister had a well documented and long-running feud from the mid-1970s onwards.
Greer Garson – 1942
British Oscar Winner responsible for time-limited speeches
Movie: Mrs. Miniver
Listed as one of the 10 top box office draws during World War II, Greer Garson received a total of 7 Oscar nominations for her work.
Born in Essex and an only child, she worked in theatre and was televised early on as part of the BBC’s live transmissions from the Alexandra Palace. She won her award for Mrs. Miniver, and unwittingly, won another award at the same time.
Her award acceptance speech ran for over 5 minutes. Earning her a place in the Guinness Book of Records. The Academy introduced the famous ‘time limit’ for speeches shortly thereafter.
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Ray Milland – 1945
Movie: The Lost Weekend
One of the most well known British Oscar winners of the time was Ray Milland. Prior to a lengthy screen career which ran from 1929 to 1985, Ray Milland was in the British Army. He was a marksman, a horse rider and an airline pilot.
Starring with many famous actresses and was Paramount Picture’s highest-paid actor at the time. Ray worked with Hollywood A-list names such as Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, and Ginger Rodgers.
In the early thirties, he moved to America to make movies in Hollywood. He returned to Britain after just a few years when the studio did not renew his contract. In the later years of his career, Milland focused primarily on directing.
Olivia de Havilland – 1946
Movie: To Each His Own
Older sister of Joan Fontaine born in Tokyo, Japan to British parents. Olivia de Havilland appeared in a massive 49 films during her career starting in the late 1930s. She was one of the leading movie stars during the Classical Hollywood period. Olivia had a strained relationship with Warner Bros studio that resulting in court action, eventually releasing her from her contract.
She won the Academy Award for her role in To Each His Own, playing the part of an unmarried woman that gives up her child for adoption. Olivia never had any formal acting training, and she and her sister Joan, are the only siblings to ever both win an award and the only British-sister Oscar winners. Despite winning the award for this film, Olivia is perhaps best remembered for her role as ‘Mellie’ in Gone with the Wind.
Ronald Colman – 1947
Movie: A Double Life
Born in Surrey, UK in 1891 and the recipient of 2 gold stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Known for having a rich, melodious, and beautiful voice. It that typified that of the ‘quintessential English gentleman’. Ronald Colman was, sadly, unable to capitalize on his gift until the advent of the talking movies.
Along with his successful career in theatre and movies, Ron Colman also featured in several television productions, including many appearances on The Jack Benny Show, and featured on several radio productions.
Laurence Olivier – 1948
Movie: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Possibly one of the most famous British Oscar Winners. Noted as one of the best actors and remembered for his performances of Shakespeare on both stage and screen. Laurence Olivier won the Oscar for his performance of Hamlet. Off-screen he was known for his affair, and marriage, to Vivien Leigh.
There were rumours of suspected involvement with Danny Kaye though Olivier denied this in his autobiography. He passed away in 1989 after battling cancer for over a decade. Lawrence Olivier was the youngest actor ever to receive a knighthood.
Olivia de Havilland -1949
Movie: The Heiress
Following a series of critically acclaimed films, Olivia de Havilland won her 2nd Oscar for William Wyler’s film ‘ The Heiress’. The movie was based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square.
After seeing the play on Broadway Olivia believed it to be the perfect role for her and flew to New York to convince Wyler to produce the movie.
She retired in the late 90’s but remained active in the film community and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017. She was the oldest person to ever receive the honor at 101 years of age.
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Vivien Leigh – 1951
Movie: A Streetcar Named Desire
Considered one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, with a reputation for being difficult to work with. Vivian Leigh won her 2nd Oscar in 1951 for her performance of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee William’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Leigh performed in the movie version of the play after performing the role on the West End for 9 months.
She was not a fan of the role and once went on record to state that ‘playing Blanche DuBois tipped me over into madness.’ Leigh struggled with Bipolar disorder and bouts of depression. She passed away at just 53 years of age from Tuberculosis.
Audrey Hepburn – 1953
Movie: Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn is one of just 14 actors in the world that have won an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar awards. She was born in Britain but her family moved to Holland during the war believing it to be safer. The Germans invaded and Hepburn nearly starved as a result of the Nazis cutting off food supplies.
Ranked as the 3rd greatest screen legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age and inducted to the International Best Dressed List. Audrey Hepburn was best remembered for her iconic role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as Holly Golightly. A staunch humanitarian, Hepburn gave up her film career to concentrate on dedicating her time to UNICEF and relief work.
Her last performance was on television, hosting a PBS series about gardens of the world for which she won the Emmy, screened in 1993 just one day after she passed away.
Alec Guinness – 1957
Movie: The Bridge Over the River Kwai
Alec Guinness began his film career in the 1940s, cementing his position through the 1950s culminating with his role in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. It was this role that snagged the Oscar win for Alec.
The 60s and ’70s saw a continuation of his movie career with many remembering him for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). A role which he apparently despised. Alex Guinness died in the year 2000 at the age of 86 from liver cancer.
David Niven – 1958
Movie: Separate Tables
Known for his gentlemanly persona and charm. David Niven left for Hollywood in the mid-1930s and after several minor or non-speaking roles, landed his first major motion pictures in the last few years of the decade.
When World War II began in 1939 Niven left Hollywood and joined the British Army, hardly surprising as he had graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1930 with a commission as a second lieutenant.
After the war Niven returned to Hollywood resuming his acting career and featured in several motion pictures. Though seeing a decline in his career in the early to mid 50’s Niven came back strongly later that decade and won the Oscar in 1958 for Separate Tables, etching his name into the list of British Oscar winners.
Elizabeth Taylor – 1960
Movie: Butterfield 8
The first of 2 Oscars for Elizabeth Taylor, she began her career as a child actress. By the 1950’s Elizabeth was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood. She was born in London to American parents who left for Los Angeles in 1939. First appearing on movie screens in 1942 and working into the next decade.
Taylor was successful but due to contractual obligations was required to perform in whatever films the studio decided. She was not a fan of many of the roles she was given and tried to end her career in the early 50s.
The roles got better and she won her first Oscar for Butterfield 8, though reportedly that was a role she wasn’t fond of also. The movie was her last performance for MGM studios.
Rex Harrison – 1964
Movie: My Fair Lady
Rex Harrison was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force and served during World War II. His acting career began much sooner in 1924. The Oscar win came 40 years later in 1964. He received a knighthood in 1989 and married 6 times. 4 of the marriages ended in divorce and 2 partners committed suicide, though one was already divorced from Rex at the time.
He became one of our British Oscar winners for the 1964 production of My Fair Lady, and his last film appearance was in 1982’s A Time to Die.
For the rest of his life, Rex Harrison continued to perform in the theater even with the appearance of some health problems. He passed away in 1990 at the age of 82 from pancreatic cancer.
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Julie Andrews – 1964
Movie: Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews made her stage debut as a child actress in the West End in the mid-1940s and appeared on TV in the mid-1950’s. She first appeared in a major motion picture as the iconic Mary Poppins in Disney’s production of the same name. It was Julie Andrews first appearance on the big screen for which she scooped the Academy Award.
She went on to film The Sound of Music and many other films. Born in 1935 and made into a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in the year 2000, Julie continues to act and provide movie voices today – most recently she voiced a character in the new Aquaman movie starring Jason Momoa. She is possibly one of the most charming and popular of British Oscar winners.
Julie Christie – 1965
Julie Christie is a British Film actress that became synonymous with the swinging sixties. She has been in 6 films that are on the list of the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century. Winning a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award.
Julie won the Oscar for her performance in the 1965 movie ‘Darling’. She performed in Dr Zhivago starring opposite Omar Sharif in the same year which was also a highly acclaimed film.
It won 5 Oscars, but unfortunately not in the Best Actress category so Julie was unable to repeat her earlier win.
Paul Scofield – 1966
Movie: A Man for all Seasons
Regarded as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, Paul Schofield preferred the stage to the silver screen. Known for his distinctive voice and intense but effortless delivery, he delighted theater audience with his many stage performances of notable roles.
He appeared in A Man for All Seasons and won the Oscar for the role which he had previously played on stage. he went on to film subsequent films and TV productions. Paul was to appear in the Orwell movie Nineteen Eighty Four but an accident on the set of another movie deprived him of the role. Paul Schofield was awarded a CBE in 1956.
Elizabeth Taylor – 1966
Movie: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Elizabeth Taylor’s 2nd Oscar win for Best Actress was for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The movie adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name. The stage production won the Tony Award in 1963, and the film version was produced and released in 1966. Starring Richard Burton alongside Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor received the best reviews of her entire acting career for her performance in the film receiving other awards in addition to the Oscar. The play is frequently revived and performed with the most recent production opening in London’s West End in 2017.
Maggie Smith – 1969
Movie: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Maggie Smith has had an acting career spanning a period of 66. She has appeared in films, theater, and numerous TV productions. The most recent being the hugely popular Downtown Abbey as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.
Smith has won multiple awards during the course of her long and illustrious career, but only one Academy Award in the category for Best Actress. She won the Oscar in 1969 for The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie in which she portrayed the titular character. Jean Broadie is a teacher with unorthodox methods and teaches her students art, love, and romance which is viewed as controversial by the establishment.
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Glenda Jackson – 1970
Movie: Women in Love
Based on the novel of the same name by D.H. Lawrence and released as a full-length film in 1969. The movie was critically received and caused a stir as it was one of the first films ever to feature full male nudity.
Glenda Jackson, starred in the film and won the Oscar for best actress. She began her acting career after being awarded a scholarship to study at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She made several films and appeared multiple times on television productions, performing in everything from serious period pieces to comedy programs.
Glenda Jackson – 1973
Movie: A Touch of Class
This British actress is one of the few 2 time Oscar winners. Glenda Jackson won the Oscar again in 1973 for the 2nd consecutive year. This time for the romantic comedy A Touch of Class.
The lead role was originally offered to Cary Grant, who turned it down and instead the role was played by George Segal. Glenda has also won a Tony and 2 Primetime Emmy Awards and is one of just a few actresses to receive the ‘Triple Crown’.
She retired from her acting career and embarked on a second career in politics and in 1992 became the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate and serving as Junior Transport Minister.
In 2015 Glenda returned to acting and appeared on radio broadcasts, performed at The Old Vic and most recently has been performing in productions on Broadway.
Peter Finch -1976
He was born in London but went to live in Australia by the time he was 10. A great actor of his generation but known for drinking and hell raising more than acting.
Making his stage debut in 1939 then spotted by Laurence Olivier, who brought him back to England. Peter Finch then had an affair with Vivien Leigh, who by that time was married to Olivier.
Despite being married 3 times Finch carried on some highly publicized affairs. He was nominated for 2 Oscars during his career and won the one for Network. Unfortunately, he passed away just a few months before the award ceremony and was the first actor to receive a posthumous award.
Ben Kingsley -1982
His birth name was Krishni Banjee but worrying it would hamper his career he changed it to Ben Kingsley. He began acting in 1960 and soon started appearing in roles on television and films. he achieved international fame for his 1982 performance of Gandhi in the movie of the same name.
One of the most highly esteemed British Oscar winners, Ben went on to act in many more successful movies. He was appointed the Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in 2002.
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Daniel Day-Lewis – 1989
Movie: My Left Foot
Born in London and began acting during the 80’s. Daniel Day-Lewis first gained recognition for the movie ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ playing a young gay man dating a Pakistani youth. Oddly enough Lewis also had a small part in the previous British Oscar winners film, Gandhi. He played a young street thug.
A well-known method actor Lewis won his first Oscar for My Left Foot playing Christy Brown, a writer, and painter with cerebral palsy. Lewis refused to break character on the set immersing himself completely in the role.
Jessica Tandy – 1989
Movie: Driving Miss Daisy
Jessica Tandy was born in London but moved to the USA after a failed marriage. She appeared for over 6 decades in stage and screen productions. Her Oscar win was for Driving Miss Daisy, starring as a wealthy Jewish widow opposite Morgan Freeman
She is the oldest of all Oscar winners, British or otherwise, receiving the award at the age of 80. Jessica was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer and died in 1992.
Jeremy Irons – 1990
Movie: Reversal of Fortune
Classically trained at the Bristol Old Vic, Irons appeared in many stage productions. Jeremy Irons played his first movie role in 1981 and received a BAFTA nomination for the role. in 1990 he played an accused attempted murder in the movie Reversal of Fortune and scooped the Oscar.
He went on to appear in many successful films and television productions. He is one of the few actors that has won the coveted ‘Triple Crown of Acting’ distinction. Winning a Tony, an Academy and an Emmy Award.
Anthony Hopkins -1991
Movie: Silence of the Lambs
A College of Music and Drama graduate and member of the National Theatre, Anthony Hopkins has had a successful film and television career. Acting with notable actors like Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, and Laurence Olivier.
He won the Academy Award for the portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter a brilliant but cannibalistic psychopath. In 1987 he was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire and he received a knighthood in 1993.
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Emma Thompson – 1992
Movie: Howard’s End
Educated at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Footlights Amateur Dramatics group alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. After starting with a career in comedy, Emma Thompson quickly progressed to television where she received acclaim for her performance in 2 BBC dramas.
She became one of our British female Oscar winners in 1992 for Howard’s End, a period drama based on the novel by E.M Forster. She was appointed the Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2018.
Helen Mirren – 2007
Movie: The Queen
A recipient of the Triple Crown of Acting and a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Helen Mirren has had a long and illustrious acting career. Appearing in film and television roles she is an actress of impressive versatility.
She was awarded the Dame Commander of the British Empire by Her Majesty in 2003 and went on to portray Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 film, The Queen. She won the 2007 Oscar for her performance.
Daniel Day-Lewis – 2007
Movie: There Will be Blood
Eight years after winning his first Oscar Daniel Day Lewis won his second Award. Even though he had performed in highly acclaimed roles like In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York, it was the movie ‘There Will Be Blood’ that made Lewis on the shortlist of 2 time British Oscar winners.
Winning this second Oscar ranked Lewis with the likes of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson for being one of the few actors to win the award in non-consecutive decades.
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Kate Winslet – 2008
Movie: The Reader
Born into an acting family and embarking on an early stage career, Kate Winslet got her first movie casting in Heavenly Creatures (1994) when she was just 17 years of age.
After attending a casting call for Sense and Sensibility she impressed Emma Thompson, the film’s star, so much that Emma picked her out from hundreds of hopefuls.
Winslet is the youngest actress to have ever received 4 Academy Award nominations. She finally won the award in 2008 for The Reader. This cheeky British Oscar winner is known as a mischievous prankster.
Colin Firth – 2011
Movie: The Kings Speech
Colin Firth gained attention for his smoldering portrayal of D’arcy in 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Acting in several subsequent films and winning the Academy Award for his portrayal of King George VI in The Kings Speech (2010).
Skillfully navigating dramatic and comedic roles Firth has also published books and worked an appeared as a guest editor on a Radio 4 program.
Daniel Day-Lewis – 2012
This British actor is the only one on the list of 3 times Oscar winners. For his role as Abraham Lincoln in the Spielberg movie Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis won his 3rd Academy Award. Lewis reportedly spent a year researching the role and read over 100 books on Lincoln.
Lewis in an honorary president of Poetry Archive and he was appointed a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire and Knighted by Prince William in 2014.
Eddie Redmayne -2014
Movie: The Theory of Everything
One of our younger British Oscar winners. Starting his career in West End theatre, Eddie Redmayne first achieved recognition with roles in My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables. However, it was his role as physicist Stephen Hawking that scored him his first Oscar.
He won notable acclaim for his role in his subsequent film, The Danish Girl. Playing a transgender man in the 1920s that was one of the first documented recipients of gender reassignment surgery.
Gary Oldman – 2017
Movie: The Darkest Hour
A talented actor known for his expressive style, Gary Oldman is popular for playing the antagonist in many of his movies. Even though Gary has had a long career playing diverse and impactful roles it was not until 2017 when he would win his first Academy Award.
Oldman gave a brilliant portrayal as Winston Churchill navigating the political challenges of Britain during World War II. he has also written and directed his own productions and appeared in several music videos.
That concludes the current list of British Oscar Winners. Some actors have been nominated many times without a win, others have scooped multiple Awards. The Oscar is still one of the biggest nights in show business and will continue to be held for many years to come.
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