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.
- Julie Andrews who didn’t get to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964) won a Best Actress Oscar playing the title role Mary Poppins (1964) in her film debut.
- Shirley Booth won a Best Actress Oscar for Come Back Little Sheba (1952); it’s unfortunate that she made only a few films.
- Ben Kingsley won the Best Actor Oscar playing the title role Gandhi (1982) the Best Picture that year in his film debut.
- Mercedes McCambridge in All the King’s Men (1949) the Best Picture that year earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar opposite Broderick Crawford’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance
- 10 year old Tatum O’Neal won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her screen debut in Paper Moon (1973) becoming the youngest winner ever in a competitive category
- Harold Russell won two Oscars for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) the Best Supporting Actor and “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance”; the only time an actor has ever won two Oscars for a single performance
- Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront (1954) the Best Picture that year earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar opposite Marlon Brando’s first Best Actor Oscar winning performance
- Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse (1936) earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar
- Miyoshi Umeki earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Katsumi Kelly in Sayonara (1957)
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:
- Robert Alda gave a terrific performance as George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
- Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) making Humphrey Bogart (and us?) fall in love with her speaking AFI’s 34th most memorable movie quote: “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
- Doris Day started her career (filling in for a pregnant Betty Hutton) impressively in Romance on the High Seas (1948)
- Deanna Durbin began her brief but notable career in the delightful Three Smart Girls (1936)
- Robert Duvall as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) opposite Gregory Peck’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance
- Katharine Hepburn‘s debut opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) is impressive
- Shirley Jones singing opposite Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma! (1955)
- Burt Lancaster made an impact was impressive as the ‘Swede’ in the crime film-noir The Killers (1946)
- Cloris Leachman running for her life in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
- Though Janet Leigh’s role in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) doesn’t amount to much more than looking good in tight blouses the film itself is a hidden gem worth checking out!
- Jack Lemmon opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You (1954)
- Shirley MacLaine in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955)
- Moira Shearer – of course it takes a unique talent to play the role of a ballerina on screen to give it the utmost credibility that is (unless one just happens to look like a dancer who can double for them). The challenge for a ballerina like Shearer to play one believably on film is therefore the acting part of the job – e.g. can she play the character in the other parts of the movie? Clearly Ms. Shearer was up to the challenge in The Red Shoes (1948) who although she herself did not receive any personal accolades for her work helped the film receive two Oscars out of five nominations (which included Best Picture); it lost to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) a stunning achievement in its own right. She went on to act in only a handful of other films most notably in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and The Story of Three Loves (1953).
- Thelma Ritter (uncredited!) as a surprised shopper opposite Edmund Gwenn’s Supporting Actor Oscar winning performance as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
- Eli Wallach’s seduction of (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee) Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956)
Ironically only one of these actors made my “most memorable final performances” list. Can you guess which one?