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This year’s award season kicks off in earnest on Sunday, Jan. 11 with the Golden Globes, the annual pageant used by Oscar prognosticators to predict who will win the award that really matters. But a Globe is, undoubtedly, nothing to scoff at, as the line of past winners serves to demonstrate.
As the Cumberbabes duke it out with the Redmayniacs for the most deserving actor of the year, a look back at those crowned during the awards’ first decades reaffirms that a win cements one’s place in Hollywood history. Jack Lemmon still boasts the greatest number of nominations for an actor, with 22. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is still, nearly 70 years later, the Hamlet of Hamlets. And no one’s managed to pull off a top hat and cane better than Fred Astaire — it’s quite possible no one never will.
As with the race for best actress, any racial diversity in the field was nearly absent for decades — Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win (in 1964), and it was more than 25 years before another black actor won for a leading role (Morgan Freeman for Driving Miss Daisy in 1990). And as with opportunities for many who have traditionally been underrepresented in Hollywood, things are slowly getting better.
This collection of photographs represents the tip of the iceberg that is LIFE Magazine’s Hollywood coverage. Taken by storied photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Allan Grant and Gordon Parks, these images capture the entertainment industry’s leading men, forever iconic.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.