Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
From Helena Howard in “Madeline’s Madeline” to almost the whole cast in “Skate Kitchen,” this summer has been rife with unforgettable debut performances from movie stars in the making. With that in mind, we asked our panel of critics to name the greatest film debuts of all time.
Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room
Out of any question I’ve been posed for this survey, this one provoked the most agony in narrowing it down to just one. But with my back to the wall, I have to go with a performance so towering, so (I’m sorry, I have to use it) iconic that it’s sort of flabbergasting to remember it’s a feature film debut: Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins.” She’d been starring on Broadway for a decade, but being good onstage is no guarantee of a smooth transition to onscreen ability—and Mary Poppins isn’t just some role. She’s a character that demands a magnetic performer who can change the lives of everyone around her by her mere presence, someone who can believably grab the screen with both hands and say, “Listen up, because I’m here now, and everything’s about to be different.” There’s a reason this movie still enchants kids half a century later, and it ain’t Dick Van Dyke’s lousy accent. When you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable that a role once played by a first timer is now being taken over by a Golden Globe and BAFTA winning bona fide movie star, and we’re all thinking, “Yeesh, she’s got big shoes to fill…”
Aaron White (@FeelinFilmAaron), Feelin’ Film Podcast, FeelinFilm.com
Julie Andrews burst onto the movie scene and into the hearts of audience members everywhere in 1964 as Mary Poppins, the title character in Disney’s live-action fairy tale about a magical nanny. She shined throughout, displaying chemistry with both her adult co-star Dick Van Dyke and the children placed under her care, while creating a memorable character that balanced sweetness, sternness, and a pitch-perfect singing voice. A first-time actress managing the charming whimsy necessary to interact with animated creatures while also perfectly carrying the story’s emotional weight on her shoulders is an incredible feat. The film itself is one of the great movie musicals, a true classic, defined by her iconic performance that families have cherished for five decades. Many actors and actresses have graced the screen with fantastic debuts. A handful of those have even been recognized critically with honors like the Academy Award for Best Actor/Actress. But only one of these outstanding, triumphant debut performances is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Jen Johans (@FilmIntuition), FilmIntuition.com, Freelance
“For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap, the job’s a game.” – “A Spoonful of Sugar”
One of the biggest miscalculations of Jack Warner’s career? Publicly passing on Julie Andrews for the big screen version of the Tony nominated role she’d originated on Broadway as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
Giving Walt Disney Studios a limited window of opportunity to present an offer before another studio put her under contract, while some actresses might’ve opted to take a break – especially considering the fact that Andrews had just given birth – the hardworking triple threat decided that the best offense was defense.
Viewing “Mary Poppins” as the spoonful of sugar she needed to help the medicine go down, Julie Andrews accepted the role that would ultimately change her career and life. And while most debut performers appear in supporting roles, Andrews was given the daunting task of carrying an entire film her first time out (just like Warner’s chosen Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn had done more than a decade earlier for Paramount in “Roman Holiday”).
Of course, Andrews proved more than equal to the task. Interacting as well with her living and breathing costars as the ones that were animated (without so much as an unscripted wink to the audience) Andrews adapted nicely to the film’s many changes in style and tone. Knowing how special her performance in the film was, Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman cast Andrews in her OTHER most famous feature, “The Sound of Music” based on the strength of rushes alone.
And as for Jack Warner? Julie Andrews wound up thanking the Warner Brothers studio head for passing on her as Eliza in an amusing Golden Globe acceptance speech, before she later beat out her good friend Hepburn for the Best Actress Academy Award. Before, during and after her debut performance, Julie Andrews was as Mary Poppins might say, “practically perfect in every way.”
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelancer The Wrap, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla
Internationally renowned Mexican actor Gael García Bernal has amassed a list of credits that includes meaty roles in works by auteurs such as Pedro Almodovar, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuarón, and Pablo Larraín. His genius; however, was first harnessed by Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu in his debut feature “Amores Perros” back in 2000. At the time, young Bernal had only been in front of the camera as a child in telenovelas and a short film as a teenager.
In the role of Octavio, and under Iñárritu’s direction, the novice performer exhibited a fervent brilliance that would catapult him into stardom. The character, an unruly guy from an impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood in Mexico City, dabbles in the illegal dog-fighting business in hopes of obtaining enough capital to elope with his sister-in-law. Bernal’s impassioned turn captures the desperate bravado and unrestrained desire that drives Octavio into an abyss of violent decisions and devastating consequences. “Amores Perros” presented the actor with a playfield of nuanced stimuli and intricate sentiments, which he avidly exploited to knocked us off our feet.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages
Most people, it seems, associate James Dean with his second feature film “Rebel Without a Cause,” but he arguably delivered his most layered performance as Cal Trask in “East of Eden,” for which he received the first of his three big screen credits. While the influence of Marlon Brando’s method acting has been well documented over the years, Dean’s less-masculine demeanor and expressive posturing ensures that viewers, then and now, have a memorable and unique experience. There’s the usual method trademarks, as Dean repeatedly stutters and milks out each sequence, but his organic interpretation/delivery of the dialogue translates to a timeless performance. With all due respect to Raymond Massey, his portrayal of the patriarchal figure, Adam Trask, feels overly-calculated and rigid despite the obvious polish. It’s purely a 50s performance, and that’s what makes the money scene (literally and figuratively) so enthralling, as Dean famously surprises Massey by zombie-walking towards him and forcing an awkward bear hug. Cal then cries and walks into a table before stumbling out of the room, while director Elia Kazan’s slanted framing creates a psychological effect. It’s all quite bizarre (in the best way).
What’s important, however, is how the scene begins — Cal feels vulnerable while seeking his father’s approval, but Dean doesn’t make the character entirely submissive. In fact, he offers up a piercing stare when the senior Trask rejects tainted money, and it’s those reactionary looks that feel genuine and authentic throughout, as opposed to the aw-shucks mainstream acting of the time. There’s a hint of rebellion in both the character and performance, foreshadowing Dean’s most iconic role in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com
Has anyone had a better film debut than James Dean? He racked up quite a few television credits between 1951 and 1955, but then 1955 came with the double-whammy of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” and lo, a Movie Star is born. “Rebel Without a Cause” is Dean’s most famous role, but “East of Eden” shows us what we lost when he died in September of that year. As Cal Trask, Dean shows the emotional range he quickly became famous for, including the way he wrenched his body during expressive moments, which doesn’t seem like much now but Dean’s physical performance looked a lot different from the older generation’s more formal style–Method acting was new and not yet synonymous with “I was very uncomfortable while making this film”.
But Dean also showed us something in “Eden” that we never really got to see him do again, which is that little smirk he gives in the scene where he introduces Aron to their profligate mother. Dean is best known for the emotional quality of his work, freely and expressively emoting all over the place, but in “Eden” we get a little taste of his potential for playing on calculated, deliberate action. He didn’t have a chance to get another role that counted his ability to portray deliberateness, which is why “East of Eden” is not only a stunning debut but a terrible, horrible tease of what could have been.
Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood
The more I think about Elsie Fisher’s revelatory turn as Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” the more I become convinced she’s one of the greatest actors of her generation. It takes a lot to make Kayla stand out in a sea of insecure cinematic teens, but Fisher’s approach feels so fresh, so new. As a bright-eyed middle-schooler swimming in the haze of hormones and social media, she infuses Kayla’s every middle-school stammer and averted gaze with heaps of adolescent pathos. Kayla’s personality is a constantly uncertain performance of confidence – the more she tries to look chill in front of her classmates, or works on her budding social media presence, the more Fisher subtly shows the audience that all the advice Kayla gives her ‘fans’ about being yourself are things she desperately wishes she could put into practice herself.
Even more miraculous is that, according to Burnham, almost nothing of Fisher’s performance was improvised – all her middle-school stammering, averted gaze, and shifting feet are the result of a highly calculated performance that nonetheless feels incredibly naturalistic. Right out of the gate, Fisher achieves a rare kind of acting alchemy that should be celebrated with all the awards, attention and profile-raising Kayla might one day, God willing, be ready for. Gucci!
Editor’s note: Elsie Fisher has technically appeared in films before (though mostly as a voice actor in the “Despicable Me” franchise), but we’re going to let it slide.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies/Freelance
The best debut performance that I’ve seen was Liv Hill in Jellyfish during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It was her first feature film. Hill starred as high school student Sarah Taylor. She more or less becomes a second mother to her younger siblings. Liv gracefully handles the role, which sees her getting bullied by classmates in her drama class. Even though the film was produced before the whole #MeToo era started, there are men in the film who abuse their power. This is beside the point. Liv had never performed stand-up comedy before agreeing to do the role and yet here she is on stage performing stand-up comedy using her truth as the basis for a routine. Sarah is such a vulnerable character but shows that she’s not afraid of being silent.
I saw a lot of raw talent in Liv Hill’s performance, and I can’t wait to see Liv take the world by storm.
Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc) Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine
When Jennifer Hudson belted out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in the 2006 movie musical “Dreamgirls,” I remember getting goosebumps up my arms. Hudson was transfixing in her screen debut. And what made her performance (which landed her both an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress) all the more impressive was that she was not a trained actress. The world was introduced to Hudson as a singer, when she was on the third season of “American Idol,” which she did not win. Prior to the TV show, she was performing on Disney cruise ships. Hudson’s big break came when she hit a chord with “Idol” viewers; it cemented her as someone who people wanted to watch. And when Hudson transformed into Effie White for her Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls,” people were watching. In fact, you couldn’t really take your eyes off Hudson as she belted out her showstopping numbers.
In a cast awash with luminaries like Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé, Danny Glover, and Eddie Murphy, Hudson rose to the top. (You know somebody’s got that “It” factor if they are upstaging Queen Bey.) “Dreamgirls” had a production budget of $80 million, which made it one of the most costly films featuring an African-American cast. Its critical and commercial success laid groundwork for future big budget films starring non-white cast members, like the astronomically successful “Black Panther,” and this month’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” which many hope will lead to an increase in Hollywood roles for Asian-American actors. Hudson’s powerhouse debut in “Dreamgirls” led to an increase in roles for her; the native Chicagoan went on to make more films, albums, and impact, as she continues to rise to the top, with no sign of stopping.
Caroline Madden (@crolinss), Scream Queens, Fandor
Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett in “Ordinary” People is both a phenomenal film debut and one of the greatest performances from a young actor. With his mournful frown and spastic tics, he is a captivating bundle of anxiety, a ticking time bomb of overwhelming emotion on the verge of bursting—which it does in full force during the painful and moving nervous breakdown scene. The guilt and grief over the loss of his brother looms over him like a great black cloud. Hutton deftly captures the desperation of a young boy drowning in his shame and sadness; without his naturalism, “Ordinary People” would not be such a sympathetic and convincing depiction of depression. Hutton’s performance is utterly mesmerizing and one of the finest first film appearances.
Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film), The Young Folks, Culturess
There were many options I wanted to pick, spanning the decades from the beginnings of film itself. In the end, I went with a performance I’ve always been drawn to and that’s Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.” Arnold is a master when it comes to picking untested talent – her discovery of Sasha Lane for American Honey is as humorous as it is genius. But for Fish Tank, Arnold wanted to look at the confusion of being a teenage girl in a landscape that heavily sexualizes young women. Jarvis’ performance as Mia is at times antagonistic, but you understand that she’s reacting to the world around her. She’s inquisitive, provoking, yet in the end desperately doesn’t want to be a product of her environment. Jarvis creates empathy in a character that, if played with more polish by a professional actress, would have been a complete turn-off. Jarvis brings an added dose of authenticity because she wasn’t an established actress.
Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviews
Angela Lansbury in “Gaslight” (1944). George Cukor was her first director and her first co-stars were Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. All three were weighty names at the time, amassing 16 Academy Award nominations in their respective careers. On the other hand, Lansbury was only 17 and had only lived in the U.S. for three years and had recently received two years of professional training.
“Gaslight” was her first film role ever. She hadn’t been a bit player, appearing in the background as an extra, or done any major theater work prior. “Gaslight” was not an indie, the term barely existed. It was released by the biggest studio in the world: MGM. Lansbury could have ended her career before it started with one bad performance.
Instead, her role as the saucy cockney maid is stellar. She plays a woman of “loose” morals, going out with her multiple ‘gentlemen friends’ and flirting with a married man, her boss nonetheless. It’s a cavalier role that is modern. And in each scene, Lansbury isn’t cowering in the shadows. She can’t. Her character is too bold, strong, and self-confident. In most instances, she’s outperforming both Boyer and Bergman. There’s a magnetism, that cliché feeling, which she projects—feeding into what’s a psychological film. “Gaslight” has become one of those relics of cinema, somewhat stilted and stuffy, like other works from the era. But Lansbury’s performance, for which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, still feels fresh, energetic, and dangerous. I can’t think of a better debut.
Hannah Woodhead, Little White Lies
Frances McDormand in “Blood Simple”. Can you believe that was her first screen role? Honestly. Your faves could never. McDormand is incredible in every Coens film she stars in, but “Blood Simple” was the first, and marked McDormand’s arrival onto the scene as…pretty much perfect from the start.
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Birth.Movies.Death., Bright Wall/Dark Room
Frances McDormand in “Blood Simple.” McDormand was having a stellar year on stage in 1984–starring in a main stage production of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the famed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis—but she entered a new phase in her career when she signed on to play Abby in what was also the Coen brothers’ feature film debut. The role was originally offered to Holly Hunter, but she turned it down and encouraged McDormand, her roommate at the time, to go for it. Among other things, the spark of her relationship with the Coens on “Blood Simple.” led to her iconic performance as Marge Gunderson in “Fargo.”
Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4) We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu
While plenty of credit goes to the Coen Brothers work in putting together their promising debut feature, “Blood Simple,” I have a lot of praise to give to Frances McDormand, who made her acting debut here as well. As a neo-noir with such a distinctive visual style, much of the film is driven by the actions taken by characters, as opposed to the performances. Even then, many could be more lured in by the sliminess of M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I. character or the constantly sweaty Marty played by Dan Hedaya. However, it is McDormand’s Abby that manages to have the upper hand by the end of the film, having already proven herself along the way.
Even before Marty meets his demise, Abby has already humiliated her awful husband, giving him a kick in the balls for good measure. By the end of the film, with the thought that Marty’s currently stalking her, thanks to another of many misunderstandings by all, she takes matters into her own hands by fighting back, eventually standing triumphant and declaring she’s not afraid. McDormand would go on to have a well-lauded career for her acting work, but this early performance in Blood Simple felt like one terrific announcement of someone with all the courage they would need.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
There are so many possible contenders here that it made my head spin a little bit trying to pick just one. I like thinking outside the box, though, so I’m going to go with Eddie Murphy’s performance as Reggie Hammond in “48 HRS.” He’d already become a sensation on “Saturday Night Live” by the time the movie was released in 1982, but no one knew what a force he could be on the big screen. Murphy is on fire here — he’s sharp, funny, magnetic, and charismatic. He commands the audience’s attention at every single second. You just can’t take your eyes off him. Poor Nick Nolte probably thought this was his movie.
“48 HRS” proved that Murphy was going to become a major movie star — a promise he certainly delivered on.
Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance
Edward Norton in “Primal Fear”. It’s a character whose life is built on deception — and how perfect that it was performed by an actor whom we knew nothing about. A quicksilver, brilliantly slippery piece of work that constantly exploded our expectations. (A few years later, I interviewed Sean Penn, and he spoke enviously about Norton’s debut; as a “celebrity,” Penn now felt he had to waste the first five minutes of every movie waiting for audiences to forget all that gossip, while a new actor like Norton was just there, from the first scene). In any case, it’s a great performance — so great that when Norton’s audition tape made the rounds, he quickly landed very different parts in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and Milos Forman’s “The People Vs. Larry Flynt.” And while I know this is about Best Debut Performance — DAMN. Did any performer ever have such a best debut year?
Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance contributor for Vanity Fair, The Verge, MovieMaker Magazine, The Independent
“Primal Fear” was released on video sometime in the summer or fall of 1996, when I was 14 years old. I rented it shortly after because a friend said it was good. That was basically all I knew about it, other than I also liked Richard Gere because I loved “First Knight” (hey man, taste is a process). To say the ending of the film blew me away is an understatement; I spent the next several months obsessed over watching courtroom dramas and anything that involved a twist ending. This is even what first provoked me to watch “Vertigo.”
The ending of “Primal Fear,” and the power behind it, is based solely on the performance of a young actor named Edward Norton, in his mid-20s at the time and making his first on-screen appearance. Norton played Aaron Stampler, a young altar boy accused of brutally murdering a priest, and then being discovered to (maybe) have schizophrenia. The film’s ultimate “gotcha” reveal is dependent on Norton being able to deliver a crucial facial expression, and he nails it. According to IMDb’s trivia section, over 2,000 actors were auditioned for the role, including Matt Damon and James Marsden, and Leonardo DiCaprio turned it down. Regardless of whether any of this is true, the point is that director Gregory Hoblit and the film’s casting team absolutely nailed their pick. It’s both extremely brave and probably nerve-racking to–in a movie anchored by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (at the time)–allow the film’s emotional climax and denouement to come from an actor who’d never even been on screen before.
After watching the film I immediately walked into the other room and told my mom that I had just watched the performance that would win the next Supporting Actor Oscar. Even though I was always a precocious kid, I have no idea what made me think I could possibly know or claim such a thing. I’d only been watching the Oscars for a few years at that point, and didn’t actually understand much about them. But Norton did end up nominated, and though he didn’t win (that was the year of “Jerry Maguire” and Cuba), it instilled a belief in me that Oscar punditry was something I was good at. 22 years later, I now (sometimes) get paid to do it, and Edward Norton in “Primal Fear” is still the best debut performance I’ve ever seen.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson
My goal in answering this question was to look past the one-hit wonders. I wanted to cite a new talent that not only soared spectacularly on their first effort, but stuck around to prove it wasn’t beginner’s luck. With that in mind, I go straight to Edward Norton and 1996’s “Primal Fear.” The term “unforgettable” is thrown around often as a superlative, maybe even too much, to celebrate memorable characters and moments. Norton’s arc as Aaron Stampler is one that fits that adjective and then some. Inhabiting that character’s deceptive quirks and coyly displaying the range of manipulative emotional swings was nothing short of a phenomenal acting display from Boston native.
That performance was masterfully crafting multiple dimensions, not just a put-on stutter, and stands as early proof of his notorious reputation as a perfectionist. Criticism be damned, I’d rather have an actor like Norton that seeks perfection with recklessness than abandon their quality of work with equal carelessness simply to cash paychecks. The springboard coming from better-than-competent director Gregory Hoblit’s own feature directorial debut led to a Golden Globe win and a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Norton, his first of three so far in his excellent career. I know a large case could be made for William H. Macy in “Fargo” and Cuba Gooding, Jr’s surprising win for “Jerry Maguire” created an energetic Oscar moment that has been replayed for two decades, but, by golly, that should have been Norton’s win.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute
Perhaps the most astonishing debut I can remember watching fresh was Edward Norton’s in “Primal Fear”. Because of the nature of the character, and the fact that most viewers hadn’t seen Norton’s work before, few truly knew just how canny and assured his performance is.
Millicent Thomas (@MillicentOnFilm) Social Editor at Screen Queens
In Carol Morley’s incredible “The Falling” (2014), Florence Pugh made her screen debut. She played the supporting role alongside Maisie Williams. but certainly stole the show, even if she wasn’t in it for the last hour. She played schoolgirl Abbie Mortimer, who unknowingly incites a trend of fainting throughout the strict all-girls catholic school. Her unique voice alone was enough to grab the attention of the audience and she is just infinitely watchable. I read somewhere that she rushed into the audition after school one day and felt she did awfully, well I’m glad Morley saw what she saw in her because now we have brilliant performances like “Lady Macbeth”, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Cinemayward.com
My favorite filmmakers working today, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have a penchant for discovering and cultivating creative talent. The Dardenne brothers prefer to cast unknown actors in their social realist parables, undergoing a rigorous casting process to find just the right performance from the right actor. Two acting debuts in their early films stand out: Jérémie Renier in “La Promesse” (1996) and Émilie Dequenne in “Rosetta” (1999).
In “La Promesse,” Renier is lively and affecting as Igor, a teenager helping his lowlife father run a scheme for smuggling and housing undocumented immigrants. When an immigrant man is fatally injured, Igor promises to look after his wife and infant child, a promise which puts him at ethical odds with his father. Renier’s range and maturity is noticeable; even at age 15, he’s able to convey complex emotions with sincerity and verve.
Similar themes of coming-of-age, employment, and parental neglect haunt Dequenne’s Rosetta, who struggles to maintain a steady job to keep herself and her alcoholic mother afloat. The Dardennes describe “Rosetta” as a “war film,” bolstered by Dequenne’s ongoing (at times, literal) fight for a paycheck. Her powerful debut performance as Rosetta earned her a Best Actress award at Cannes; the film won the first Palme d’Or for the Dardennes in 1999. The Dardennes won a second Palme d’Or in 2006 for “L’Enfant,” starring a grown-up Jérémie Renier; he’s since played roles in the Dardennes’ “The Silence of Lorna,” (2008) “The Kid with a Bike,” (2011) and “The Unknown Girl” (2017). Both Dequenne and Renier imbue their characters with such vibrancy, a sincere emotional depth revealed not in dialogue but in action. These are very subtle, physical performances, the camera seemingly rushing to catch up with the characters’ bodies in motion. Ethical dilemmas are explored not via abstract ideas, but in concrete deeds and decisions, bodily gestures and postures. All of the Dardennes’ films end with a climatic moment of emotional catharsis and redemption–an immanent transcendence–reminding us that even in the most dire and murky of moral situations, there is always a glimmer of hope.
Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Young Folks
20th Century Fox/Photofest
I finally watched “Die Hard” a few years ago. It’s one of our great cultural touchstones that had been hyped up so much, I figured there was no way it could live up to it all. Only it did. I watched the movie and was amazed, not just by the action, but by its values, which revolved around a traditionally masculine guy learning to accept his wife’s ambitions and needs. And of course, it had one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Hans Gruber, played by the late great Alan Rickman in his first film role. Gruber could’ve easily been a cartoonish stereotype, but in Rickman’s capable hands, he was a genuinely menacing force to be reckoned with. Rickman may have gotten a late start, but he more than made up for it over a period of nearly 40 years, with roles as varied as the the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”the secret romantic Colonel Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility,” a snarky angel in “Dogma,” and yet another iconic turn as Professor Snape in the “Harry Potter” franchise. But his first role as Gruber remains one of his most memorable (probably the most memorable) and made him a fixture on the big screen. RIP.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
I’m torn, as there are so many great first performances to choose from, including those by folks whose initial credits were for TV. I love Alan Rickman in “Die Hard,” Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit” and Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” for example, and many more. I’m going to have lay my money down on Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s 1998 second feature, “Rushmore,” however, as my current top choice. A brash and commanding screen presence from the first shot, Schwartzman is both awkward nerd and born leader in one charismatic package. His Max Fischer careens from madcap scheme to madcap scheme, all the while navigating the pitfalls of adolescent angst. Just 18 when the film was released, Schwartzman already possesses the acting chops of someone much older. Since then, he has continued to build on this awe-inspiring debut, delivering a variety of great performances (one of my favorites among them in Bob Byington’s 2015 “7 Chinese Brothers”) that showcase his immense talent. But it all began here. Watch it and be star-struck.
Ella Kemp (@efekemp), Cinema Editor for Culture Whisper, Freelance for Little White Lies, The Quietus, Dazed
Nobody was expecting anything from Amanda Seyfried in “Mean Girls.” Since she left the plastics and donned her sequins for the “Mamma Mia!” franchise, it’s easy to forget those harder days when there is now so much music to thank her for.
As Karen Smith, Seyfried’s debut role, this unassuming, young all-American bottle blonde created some kind of icon in her wondrous stupidity. She’s the dumbest Plastic there is and has very little to offer in terms of tangible threat or intelligent interest alongside Rachel McAdams’ Regina George or even opposite Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron. But in her calm but always precisely calculated posture, and the terrifically blank but cynically charged delivery of her lines, now iconic, (the sick note phone call is a favourite), Seyfried cemented her potential as a force to be reckoned with.
In comedy, in music, and now in heartbreaking drama with “First Reformed”, there’s a lot to be said for an actor who can convince the world of her worth with a role that asks her to predict the weather with her breasts.
Ally Johnson (@AllysonAJ), TheYoungFolks.com , CambridgeDay.com, ThePlaylist.net
It’s only been five years since his feature film debut but since then, LaKeith Stanfield’s stock in the independent film world has risen, much to the delight of those who first saw him in Destin Cretton’s film “Short Term 12”. Brie Larson might have been the deserved highlight in a star making turn but Stanfield threatened to steal the show as a strictly peripheral character who filled the corners of the screen with his presence each and every time he appeared.
For an actor who has gotten to become more eccentric, playful and lively since with pivotal roles in “Atlanta”, “Get Out” and his leading role in “Sorry to Bother You” it’s easy to forget the role that introduced viewers to him in the first place. In his standout scenes, particularly his introductory rap, his charisma is magnetic and he conveys all the pain that the character is bearing. He was so good that it’s easy to believe there was a movie to be made focused solely on his character Marcus and his journey. However, rather than giving us an endless supply of memorable moments with him in the film, he asserted himself instead as a true talent with the little he was given,one so striking that plenty of us who first watched the film couldn’t help but feel as if we had personally discovered something great.
Hoai-Tran Bui (@htranbui), /Film
Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit” is so earth-shatteringly good that she has never been able to top it (though she got close with “The Edge of Seventeen”). And I wish she would, because Steinfeld showed more potential in her turn as Mattie Ross than many prestigious male actors could in a lifetime. She proved it by not only going toe-to-toe with acting greats Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin in “True Grit,” but in the hardened wariness and aching vulnerability she lent the character originated by Kim Darby in the 1969 original. Plenty of former Hollywood “ingenue” roles earn attention because they are of young women playing wise beyond their years — plucky, intrepid, dauntless. What’s amazing about Steinfeld’s Mattie is that she is trying to be all those things, to mask the terrified child hiding inside. It’s a tremendously layered performance that deservedly earned Steinfeld her first Oscar nod. But hopefully, it won’t be her last.
Deany R. Cheng (@DeandrickLamar), Barber’s Chair Digital
Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”. She did a bunch of short films prior to this, but her turn in the Coens’ Western felt like a quiet revelation. She has a knack for imbibing her roles with an impetuous sort of naïvete: Never knowing well enough to understand when she should be scared, and somehow coming off as both undeniably of her years and wise beyond them. She’s done better work than Mattie Ross–witness her all-timer of a performance on “The Edge of Seventeen”–but Mattie Ross feels like a prism through which the rest of her career will be refracted. It’s still early, but something tells me she’ll have a good one.
Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs), Screen Queens
I remember sitting in the theater during “The Witch” trying to think of where I’d seen Anya Taylor-Joy’s face before, a face which so faultlessly and confidently uttered the indiscernible nonsense of seventeenth-century English. It’s hard to believe that that was her first real acting credit, when you consider the performance, so physically poetic, you’d think it were impossible to be given by someone whose only prior acting listed on Wikipedia is an uncredited role in “Vampire Academy”.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages
“The Witch” was a game-changer in many ways, from its gut-punch of an ending, to its old-timey sensibilities, and unabashed employment of ye Olde Englishe. Although the flick divided horror fans for endlessly stupid reasons (the age-old question of “is it really horror?” was once again trotted out to embarrass everybody), its central performance could not be faulted. Indeed, much of the film’s power comes from Anya Taylor-Joy’s peerless, fearless portrayal of the tortured young Thomasin. Torn apart by hormones, lusted after by her younger brother, her shoulders heavy with responsibility today’s iPhone-obsessed kids couldn’t dream of, she’s the powerhouse of the story.
For much of the film, first time writer-director Robert Eggers keeps his camera trained on Taylor-Joy’s open, oval face, emphasizing her youth so that when she finally succumbs to the devil, it’s that much more of a shock. Young Taylor-Joy, utilizing her multicultural background as a British-Argentinian-American, affects a perfect accent and a steady, unwavering gaze that belies a far more experienced actor. That this is her very first film role — a lead, no less, who’s tasked with facilitating much of the story — is even more impressive. Her varied choices since her breakout further confirm Taylor-Joy’s presence, and that she has even more to give.
Caroline Tsai (@carolinetsai3), The Harvard Crimson
Fox Searchlight Pictures
2012’s highly Oscar-buzzed “Beasts of the Southern Wild” boasted two astounding debut performances: Quvenzhané Wallis’s six-year-old Hushpuppy, an intrepid 6-year-old girl living in the Louisiana bayou with her father Wink, played by Dwight Henry. Though both were newcomers to the screen—Wallis having lied about her age to get her role (a mere five years old), Henry having worked previously as a baker—their performances respectively suggest a depth of skill far beyond their meager filmography. There’s a thrilling un-self-consciousness about both performances, an unbridled energy that lends their respective characters a certain humanity that no veteran actor or actress could have evoked. I think particularly of the scene in which Wink teaches Hushpuppy to eat a crab by ripping it in half lengthwise, then draining it of meat. When Hushpuppy follows suit, she stands on the table and flexes her biceps, a surprising fierceness on her face. That kind of intuitive emotion is hard to teach.
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse
I’m probably bending the rules here, but “Citizen Kane” was technically Orson Welles’s first appearance in a feature film.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The real answer, of course, is Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” but IMDb offers dutiful listings of his earlier haphazard credits; also, Tippi Hedren, in “The Birds,” but she has an earlier listing as “Ice Box Petty Girl (uncredited)” in “The Petty Girl”; even “A Hard Day’s Night” isn’t the Beatles’ first credit; I’m tempted to say Jason Holliday in “Portrait of Jason,” but he’s listed as “self” and not “actor”; so, to get around all this pettiness, the official answer is Lauren Bacall, in “To Have and Have Not.”
Emily Sears (@emily_dawn), Birth.Movies.Death.
In 1994, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey made their unforgettable feature debut side by side in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” Playing real-life troubled teens Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, the two young actresses give remarkable performances as the intoxicating friendship takes a dark and unsettling turn at the threat of separation. At only nineteen, Winslet is already a commanding presence on screen, while Lynskey, at only sixteen, exhibits astonishing talent. Despite the ugliness born from Juliet and Pauline’s obsessive relationship, it’s the authenticity Winslet and Lynskey bring to the intensely intimate and dramatic bond between the girls that makes their debut so memorable.
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Freelance for Slashfilm, Thrillist and Vulture
I’m hard-pressed to thing of any film debut as perfect as Kate Winslet’s in “Heavenly Creatures”. It’s baffling to me how someone so young could emerge out of nowhere and give that kind of performance. Her character, Juliet Hume (based on a real-life woman who later became the crime writer Anne Perry), is absolutely terrifying, a privileged rich girl who exacts a murderous authority over her best friend, played by Melanie Lynskey (who is also fantastic). It’s an amazing showcase for a young actress, and Winslet hit it out of the park. She evokes a young Bette Davis, with her heavy eyebrows and unconventional beauty, and with her ruthless, icy gaze. Winslet has had many great roles, but her first remains her best.
Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Weekend Warrior
This is definitely a tough one because there were a lot of great debut performances that received Oscar nominations including Qhvenzhané Wallis from “Beasts of a Southern Wild,” Catalina Sandino Moreno from Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace” and who could forget Keisha Castle-Hughes from Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider”? I’m not even sure “Room” could be considered Jacob Tremblay’s debut performance since he made a bunch of other movies that were delayed due to the Relativity bankruptcy. I find it interesting that almost all of the above and Helena Howard were essentially non-actors who made the movies in which they were cast because they were newbies. I was hoping Kim Greist’s appearance in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” would count but she did appear in “C.H.U.D” so she’s out.
I’m gonna go with a two-fer by picking Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures” because that’s such an amazing movie on its own. When you realize that Winslet had only done a few TV appearances and Lynskey had done nothing yet and they give such riveting performances, you can almost tell that they would have long careers as Oscars. Of course, few would know that Winslet would become one of the most respected actors with multiple Oscar nominations and win, and Lynskey would become a busy indie darling, who has carried so many films and TV shows, you really have to give big ups to Jackson and his producers for finding the two actors for the film. The movie and their performances still stand up to this day (and it’s celebrating its 25th anniversary next year!)