Memorable Film Debuts
What are some of the most memorable first acts in the movies? In this essay, my goal is to compile a list of the best first film performances from classic actors and actresses. Many would go on to greater heights, while some would never again meet or exceed the high standard they set for themselves in their movie debut. It's interesting to see how some of the best actors & actresses of the Golden Age of Cinema began their careers, by seeing them in their very first film role. You might notice that it helps, as far as awards are concerned, to have your film debut in a movie which earns (Best Picture) Oscar recognition.
Great Screen Debuts - Actors & Actresses who left us with the best first impressions!
Teresa Wright deserves to be mentioned first because her first THREE performances were recognized by her peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. That's right, not only was her screen debut performance as Bette Davis's daughter in The Little Foxes (1941) awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but she won that award for her next on-screen performance as Greer Garson’s daughter-in-law in Mrs. Miniver (1942), the Best Picture that year. That same year, she lost the Best Actress Oscar to her titled co-star Garson; Wright's performance in her third film, The Pride of the Yankees (1942), had earned her a third Oscar nomination, one for each of her first three films, as Best Actress, which was also her last recognition from the Academy.
Montgomery Clift in The Search (1948), received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his screen debut; opposite Clift, Ivan Jandl (in his only film) won a special Award for the outstanding juvenile of the year
Greer Garson opposite Robert Donat's Oscar winning Best Actor performance in the title role of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), received a Best Actress Oscar nomination
Patricia Collinge, in her debut at age 48 (one of only a handful of performances), received a Best Supporting Actress nomination (opposite Ms. Wright's debut) in The Little Foxes (1941)
John Dall, Bette Davis's pupil in The Corn is Green (1945), received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, for one of his few film roles
John Garfield as Mickey Borden in Four Daughters (1938), received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
Lee Grant in Detective Story (1951), received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a frightened, regretful first time shoplifter
Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941), received (his only!) Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
Julie Harris received her only Oscar nomination (for Best Actress) in her screen debut playing 12 year old Frankie Addams (the title role) in The Member of the Wedding (1952) - she was 27 at the time; the film was also the first for Brandon De Wilde
Claude Jarman Jr. won a special Juvenile Award from the Academy for being the outstanding child actor of 1946 for his role in The Yearling (1946)
Miliza Korjus earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her first (and only American) film role in The Great Waltz (1938)
Jocelyne LaGarde received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her first and only film role in Hawaii (1966)
Angela Lansbury, opposite Ingrid Bergman's first Best Actress Oscar winning performance, received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Gaslight (1944), which she followed up with a couple of other memorable roles (much like Ms. Wright).
John Malkovich earned his first Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination playing Mr. Will in Places in the Heart (1984).
Jason Miller earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (his only) in his screen debut as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist (1973)
Robert Morley opposite Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938), received his first and only Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
Paul Muni earned the first of his six Best Actor Oscar nominations for his film debut in The Valiant (1929)
Don Murray opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop (1956), received (his only) Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
Maureen Stapleton earned the first of her four Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for her role in the film Lonelyhearts (1958)
Richard Widmark earned his only Oscar recognition, Best Supporting Actor nomination, for his sniveling, slimy Tommy Udo character in Kiss of Death (1947)
Other memorable screen debuts include:
Ironically, only one of these actors made my "most memorable final performances" list. Can you guess which one?