To some extent, the Oscars favor experience. For one, making a movie is really hard, and you tend to need to accumulate a few under your belt before you know what you’re doing. For another, name recognition can be helpful when it comes to people voting for you: Academy members are more likely to tick your box if they’ve ticked your box before. You just have to look at this year, where three of the directors of the eight Best Picture-nominated movies are over 65, and none have been directing for less than a decade (Lenny Abrahamson is the "newest," but even he made four movies before “Room,” the first in 2004).
It’s not always this way, though. For all their flaws, the Academy are capable of recognizing a first-time filmmaker in the right circumstances, and in part of our series of features in the run-up to this year’s Oscars next Sunday (read about the best roles of this year’s acting nominees here, and the best and worst follow-ups to Oscar winners here), we’ve decided to highlight ten of the best times that they did. Below you’ll find 10 of our favorite debut directors that earned Best Director nominations from across Academy history. Let us know what you think.
Oh, and speaking of the Academy’s flaws, they’ve never nominated a first-time female director, ever. In fact, only four women filmmakers have ever been nominated: of them, Sofia Coppola was the newest, with her second feature, “Lost In Translation,” picking up the nod. So if this list looks like a sausage fest, perhaps it just further illustrates the point the industry we cover has a long way to go.
Orson Welles – “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Well, obviously. Orson Welles’ first feature as director might have only been a middling success on release, disappointing at the box office, it’s now frequently called the greatest film ever made, and certainly marks a sort of gold standard for first-time filmmakers, not least because the prodigious Welles was just 25 when it was released. Put together after studio RKO rejected his first two proposals, ‘Kane’ was a thinly-veiled biopic of media magnate Randolph William Hearst, viewing a ruthless tycoon through the prism of those who knew him. As ambitious as you’d expect from a man who had the world at his feet at such a young age, it’s been endlessly copied and homaged since (there’s an entire generation who probably came to know it through “The Simpsons” before they ever saw an actual frame), but remains as fresh as a daisy when you watch it now. Welles simply shows almost no interest in fitting into a pre-fitting Hollywood mould, experimenting with time, camerawork, tone and genre, and while it’s a gorgeous showcase for, first and foremost, Welles himself, it’s never anything less than entertaining. Hearst’s efforts to suppress the film were mostly successful: the film lost money, permanently damaged Welles’ career as a filmmaker, and despite nine nominations, it won only a single Oscar, with bloc voting by screen extras preventing him from winning the rest.
Delbert Mann – “Marty” (1955)
Director Delbert Mann isn’t talked about so much today — none of his films are particularly hip, or referenced by young indie upstarts. But he had a successful career throughout the 1950s and 1960s, taking in films like “Separate Tables” and “That Touch Of Mink,” and had one of the most striking debuts here, Academy-wise at least: not only was his debut feature “Marty” nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it won both. Mann began directing first in theater and then in TV, and it was a well-received teleplay he’d directed as part of “The Philco Television Playhouse” on NBC that landed him his first movie job when he was asked to direct the big-screen version. Paddy Chayefsky (future writer of “Network,” who also broke through here) returned to again pen the script, while the movie saw Ernest Borgnine replace Rod Steiger in the title role as a socially awkward, terminally single butcher who falls in love with a schoolteacher (Betsy Blair), only for his family and friends to try and sabotage the potential match. It’s a gentle, low-key picture, to the extent that you almost can’t believe it had such mainstream success, at least until you see it: Chayefsky’s screenplay so deftly draws drama out of its modest set-up, and Mann so brilliantly juggles tones, and captures real Bronx life, and the performances are so likeable and authentic that you immediately understand. Mann never reached this kind of success again, but given it was only one of two films (along with “The Lost Weekend”) to win the Palme D’Or and the Oscar, and it was his first film, how could he?
Sidney Lumet – “12 Angry Men” (1957)
Like Mann, Sidney Lumet came up through theater, then television, before getting to make his first movie. Unlike “Marty,” “12 Angry Men” didn’t win the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did lead to one to one of the all-time great careers for its helmer, who made nearly a movie a year for the next half-century, including any number of classics. And one of those classics is undoubtedly his first film. Adapted from Reginald Rose’s play, it could have been something ultra-stagy: a single-room drama about a jury debating the innocence, or otherwise, of a young kid accused of murdering his father, who are gradually swayed from their prejudices by juror no. 8 (Henry Fonda). It’s, in places, overly-dialectic and on the nose (the script insists on making each juror have some kind of backstory that ties to the case), but it’s so beautifully acted by everyone, and such a powerful microcosm of humanity, or at least the male half of it, that the film glosses over the clunkier bits. And Lumet excelled with a tough job, to make the situation cinematic, cranking up the claustrophobia — he even shrunk the set down as production, shot chronologically, went on — and ensuring that his emphasis went on the faces of his extraordinary crew of character actors. Despite its modesty, it went on to Best Picture and Best Director nominations, though Lumet would sadly never win the latter prize.
Mike Nichols – “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Though arriving nine years later, “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” had a similar impact to “12 Angry Men” — an adaptation of a stage hit that launched its filmmaker, the late, great Mike Nichols, to a five-decade career numbering among one of Hollywood’s most memorable. By the time he was offered the movie, Nichols had gone from comedy superstar (in a double-act with Elaine May) to stage director, winning Tony awards for “Barefoot In The Park” and “The Odd Couple.” He hadn’t directed ‘Virginia Woolf,’ also a Tony winner, but took over for the movie version, which saw tumultuous real-life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor aging up to play George and Martha, a college professor and his wife, who have a drunken, provocative evening with a younger couple. Nichols’ film doesn’t expand the scope, as such, but Ernest Lehmann’s screenplay cunningly keeps it mostly in one house and cuts the running time down while making it cinematic. What strikes you now is how confident and fully-formed a debut it is for Nichols himself, wrestling the movie-star titans and a well-established source material and yet still putting his stamp on it. Taboo-breaking for the time (it was one of a number of movies that helped put the final stake in the heart of the Production Code), it’s aged remarkably well, still as funny, scabrous as raw as it was half a century ago. It got a staggering 13 Oscar nominations, every one it was eligible for, and Nichols would win the Director Oscar the following year for his outstanding follow-up, “The Graduate.”
Warren Beatty & Buck Henry – “Heaven Can Wait” (1978)
Notable for being both somewhat ignored these days, and for marking not just one directorial debut but two, "Heaven Can Wait" is admittedly kind of a trifle, but it’s an incredibly delicious trifle at that. A remake not of the Ernst Lubitsch film of the same name but of 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (itself a version of Harry Segall’s play), it saw superstar Warren Beatty (who’d been a hands-on producer regularly, but hadn’t directed before), and “The Graduate” writer Buck Henry team up to direct, from a script by Beatty and his friend Elaine May. Beatty also stars as a star quarterback who dies in an accident, only to be reincarnated in the body of a scumbag millionaire who’s just been murdered by his wife, going on to fall in love with environmentalist, Julie Christie. It’s unashamedly commercial stuff, but works like gangbusters as a romantic comedy, with Beatty and Christie’s usual chemistry giving a real soul to their affair, and the May-isms of the script (“There is nothing to be frightened of. There’s plenty to be worried about, but nothing to be frightened of.”) providing more laughs than the average. The debut helmers swiftly prove their chops too, with a Powell & Pressburger-ish magic realism that can feel regularly swoonsome. Beatty would go on to better with his next movie, “Reds” (Henry would only direct one further feature, underwhelming satire “First Family”), but this still marked a pretty good start.
Roland Joffé – “The Killing Fields” (1984)
He’s fallen on harder times recently (one of his most recent movies was a torture-porn horror starring Elisha Cuthbert), but Roland Joffé couldn’t have asked for a better start to his feature film directing career, with Best Director nominations for his first two movies. He’d gotten his start on British TV (including long-running soap “Coronation Street”), before “Chariots Of Fire” producer David Puttnam picked him to direct “The Killing Fields.” Adapted by future “Withnail & I” helmer Bruce Robinson from New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s memoirs, it follows Schanberg (an excellent Sam Waterston) on assignment in Cambodia during the Civil War, where he forms a bond with Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), a local journalist and interpreter, only to leave him behind when he’s captured by the Khmer Rouge. It’s a remarkably honest and unsparing look at the way that Western journalists can use their subjects, and shine a valuable light on conflicts and atrocities that are often overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. Joffé helms with a confidence that belies his being a first-timer, and uses the prestige-picture trappings in a more subversive way, subtly shifting perspective from Schanberg’s moral conflict to Pran’s gruelling survival tale over time. It was nominated for seven Oscars altogether, winning three, including one for real-life Khmer Rouge labor-camp survivor Ngor (who sadly would be murdered in L.A. twelve years after the film’s release), and Joffé went on to follow it up with the Palme D’or-winning “The Mission” and another Oscar nod.
John Singleton – “Boyz N The Hood” (1991)
Though it failed to get in the Best Picture mix (clearly it was far more important for the Academy to nominate “Bugsy” and “The Prince Of Tides” instead), John Singleton’s "Boyz N The Hood" stomped all over Oscar records: when the helmer was nominated in the best director category, he was both the first ever African-American filmmaker to do so, but also overtook Orson Welles as the youngest nominated. It’s a landmark, but no more so than the film itself. A deceptively old-fashioned melodrama, a sort of updating of “Rebel Without A Cause” or “The Wild One” in some respects, the film centers on a trio of childhood friends in South Central L.A: Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr), kept on the tracks by his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne, only seven years older than his on-screen son), Ricky, a college football prospect who’s mostly stayed out of trouble, and Doughboy (Ice Cube, in his first movie), a hot-tempered Crip. Their flirtations with the gang lifestyle goes on to lead to tragedy, and there’s a force and anger to the way that Singleton gathers momentum that makes it seem like his voice is exploding off the screen, even if it’s a little clumsy or moralistic in places. And he draws out phenomenal performances from his cast, with Cube particularly impressive, especially given his relatively green status as an actor. Singleton’s sadly been more recently reduced to dim-witted actioners: hopefully his upcoming FX show “Snowfall” will be a return to form.
Spike Jonze – “Being John Malkovich” (1999)
When you suggest that “Being John Malkovich” is one of the weirdest movies ever to lead to its helmer getting an Oscar nomination, you have to remember that David Lynch has three Best Director nominations. Even then, though, Spike Jonze’s movie has a claim to take the title. Also the first produced movie script from former TV writer Charlie Kaufman, it sees an unemployed puppeteer (John Cusack) take an office job in the seven and a half-th floor of an office building, where he falls in love with a colleague, and discovers a portal that puts him inside the head of actor John Malkovich. Even seventeen years on, it’s hard to believe that it’s an actual movie that got made (or that it goes to places even stranger), but harder still to believe that it turned out so beautifully. Kaufman’s screenplay is profound, funny and melancholy, while Jonze, a skateboarder-turned-music-video-master, makes something utterly beguiling and unexpected with it, resisting any hint of flashy MTV vibes for a style that’s entirely of his own. He matches the writer’s ambition and intelligence, but softens his more misanthropic urges, bringing out the humanity while coming up with all kinds of memorable images, too. The two haven’t worked together since ‘Adaptation” in 2002, though were said to have a third collaboration brewing: we sincerely hope it comes to pass one day.
Bennett Miller – “Capote” (2005)
Some Oscar categories have a tendency to confuse ‘Best’ with ‘Most’ when they’re picking their nominees: when “Transformers” turns up in VFX, when Tarantino gets a writing nod, when whatever British period piece wins Costume Design, Sean Penn. But the directors have a better track record, highlighting the kind of subtle, unshowy helming that even critics don’t give them their proper due. Like Lenny Abrahamson this year, for instance, or when Bennett Miller picked up a nod for his first feature, “Capote.” It’s the kind of movie that would, in some years, have been overwhelmed by the titanic nature of its lead performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman utterly embodying the “In Cold Blood” author as he’s permanently broken by his attachment to one of his subjects (Clifton Collins Jr. — god, remember how good he was in this, too?). But Miller, who’d previously made the documentary “The Cruise,” demonstrated the kind of controlled, meticulous filmmaking that’s made him one of our favorites (and would later earn him a second nomination for “Foxcatcher”). He expertly slides the tone from New York culture-clash to horribly sad one-man show over the film’s running time, lets a number of other actors (Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper, in particular) make impressions too, and picks the perfect shot almost every time. It’s dispiriting that we’ve only had three films in a decade from him, but if they keep being as good as this, we don’t mind waiting.
Tony Gilroy – “Michael Clayton” (2007)
Between 2014’s “Nightcrawler,” the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, and his brother Tony’s helming debut seven years earlier, we think that the way to save the film industry might be to give anyone with the surname Gilroy a few million dollars and Robert Elswit and let them make a movie. Tony was able to turn his success penning the “Bourne” movies into his first directorial movie, and turned out a complex, endlessly rewatchable drama of the kind they supposedly don’t make any more. George Clooney took the title role, a fixer for a law firm with personal troubles, whose friend, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), in the midst of a mental breakdown, has exposed a pharmaceutical conspiracy which attorney, Karen (Tilda Swinton), is desperate to cover up. A sort of meld of 70s conspiracy thriller and character drama, it sees Gilroy take what could have been a convoluted plot and take it down fascinating tangents that seemingly don’t feed the main plot. And yet the writing’s so specific, so smart, so detailed, that everything ends up building to the whole, from the hit-and-run he’s asked to cover up in the opening flash forward, to Sydney Pollack’s last great on-screen performance (released six months before he passed). It’s almost like an act of alchemy, letting Clooney, in particular, give a performance you’d never think he was capable of. Depressingly, you suspect that not even a decade on, this would now be an HBO show rather than a movie, but we’re glad that the Academy of 2007 appreciated what they had, nominating it seven times, including a Directing nod for Gilroy.
These aren’t the only Oscar-nominated debuts, just the ones we’d suggest were the cream of the crop. Among those with Best Director nods (and in most cases, Best Picture, too) first time out include Jack Clayton with “Room At The Top,” James L. Brooks with “Terms Of Endearment,” Hugh Hudson with “Chariots Of Fire,” Jim Sheridan with “My Left Foot,” Kenneth Branagh with “Henry V,” Kevin Costner with “Dances With Wolves,” Chris Noonan with “Babe,” Sam Mendes with “American Beauty,” Rob Marshall with “Chicago” and Benh Zeitlin with “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.”
And some other excellent Best Picture nominees from debuting directors (which weren’t, however, Best Director-nominated) include Randa Haines with “Children Of A Lesser God,” Frank Darabont with “The Shawshank Redemption,” Peter Cattaneo with “The Full Monty,” Todd Field with “In The Bedroom,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with “Little Miss Sunshine,” Neill Blomkamp with “District 9,” Lee Unkrich with “Toy Story 3” and Damien Chazelle with “Whiplash.” Any others you love? Let us know.