10 top actors who won awards for their first films
Many actors spend their entire lives searching for the movie role that will define their career and very rarely does an actor truly become a star overnight. Instead, they often work years or even decades before their big Oscar moment arrives, like Helen Mirren, who was 61 when she finally won one for. The Queen.
Every once in a while, however, an actor manages to land on the first try, wowing audiences and critics alike and becoming an assured presence during awards season. For these leading actors, their first film roles launched them into a long and successful career.
Natalie Portman (The Professional)
Natalie Portman did more than hold her place against Jean Reno, Danny Aiello and Gary Oldman in The professional as Matilda, a recently orphaned girl who forms a bond with her reluctant neighbor / hitman, Leon (Reno). At just 12 years old, Portman gave a nuanced performance of a teenager seeking vengeful justice and a family bond.
Since its release in 1994, the controversial film has become a cult following. Thanks to his performance as one of the toughest characters in a Luc Besson film, the film would win the top two awards on the awards circuit and Portman would continue to star in Episodes 1-3 from Star wars franchise soon after, cementing his Hollywood star status.
Glenn Close (The World According to Garp)
After a series of successful stage performances, Glenn Close’s first feature film on the big screen, The world according to Garp, found her playing Robin William’s Garp’s mother. A feminist, Jenny Fields of Close brought Garp out of wedlock by choice and continues to have a strong influence on her aspiring one-son writer.
Close won two awards for her role and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. Subsequently, she was nominated for three more Oscars in the 1980s: for The big thrill in 1984, Natural in 1985, and Fatal attraction in 1988.
John Malkovich (Places in the Heart)
That same year, he made his Broadway debut alongside Dustin Hoffman in Death of a seller, John Malkovich appeared in his first feature film, Places in the heart, across from Sally Field. Set in central Texas in the 1930s, the film follows a widow (Field) trying to save her farm with the help of a blind boarder (Malkovich) and other interesting characters.
The film was a favorite on the awards circuit, and Malkovich was no exception. He won four awards for his performance and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. To follow up, he appeared in Fields of death the same year, Empire of the Sun in 1987, and Dangerous Liaisons in 1988.
Edward Norton (Primal Fear)
With over 2,000 actors auditioning for the character of Aaron Stampler, including Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and James Marsden, the role ultimately went to the then-unknown Edward Norton. With only a handful of Off-Broadway credits to his name, Norton became an overnight success for his portrayal of an altar boy accused of murdering a Roman Catholic archbishop.
Norton won nine awards for Primary fear, including a Golden Globe, and was the film’s only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The same year, he plays in The people vs. Larry Flynt and would go on to have iconic roles in American history x in 1998 and Fight club in 1999.
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
According to Deadline, the Coen brothers auditioned over 15,000 girls for the role of Mattie Ross in the remake of True courage. Hailee Steinfeld was ultimately chosen to play the vengeful teenager seeking to enlist a U.S. Marshal to help track down her father’s killer. At just 13, Steinfeld starred alongside Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.
Winner of 19 awards, Steinfeld was an awards season favorite and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Following this performance, she began a career as a musician and appeared in films such as Restart and Ender’s match in 2013, as well as Perfect location 2 in 2015.
Anna Paquin (The Piano)
At just nine years old, Anna Paquin delivered a brilliant performance as a child actor as Flora McGrath in The piano. Opposite Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neil, Paquin played the daughter of a silent woman (Hunter) who is sent to New Zealand with her precious piano for an arranged marriage.
Deemed a dark horse nomination, Paquin won just three awards before her surprise won the Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, beating Emma Thompson, Rosie Perez, Winona Ryder and Holly Hunter (The company) for the price. After The piano, Paquin took a three-year hiatus before appearing in Fly home in 1996, Amistad in 1997, and She is all that in 1999.
Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl)
For Funny girl, Barbara Streisand reprized her Tony nominated role from Fanny Brice which she premiered on the Broadway stage. The semi-biographical film follows real-life actress Brice and her tumultuous relationship with entrepreneur and gamer Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif).
Streisand, already a renowned singer with five Grammys to her credit, won four awards for her performance, including Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars. This made her one of the few musicians-turned-actresses to even be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win. While his primary focus continued to be his music, Streisand starred in Hello Dolly! in 1969, The way we were in 1973, and A star is born in 1976.
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins)
Prior to his film debut as a main character in Mary poppins, Julie Andrews had previously been nominated for two Tonys for My beautiful lady and Camelot. Originally hesitant to take on the role due to her pregnancy, Walt Disney himself convinced Andrews to play the role by telling him that the production would wait until after she gave birth, as mentioned by Groovy history.
In addition to becoming one of Disney’s highest-grossing films of the time, Andrews’ performance won six awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars. Following her iconic debut, she went on to star in yet another timeless role of Maria in The sound of music in 1965 and in Torn curtain and Hawaii in 1966.
Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
Fresh out of his appearances on American Idol, Jennifer Hudson starred as Effie White in Dream girls opposite Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. Loosely based on the story of The Supremes and Motown Records, the film follows a trio of black soul singers as they move on to creating pop music.
Beating 782 other actresses for the role according to The Envelope, Hudson stunned audiences with his simultaneous acting and singing prowess, performing several breathtaking songs. She won 35 awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars, and has since appeared in The secret life of bees in 2008 and Respect in 2021.
Lupita Nyong’0 (12 years slave)
Almost immediately after graduating from Yale’s drama program, Lupita Nyong’o was chosen to play Patsey in 12 years of slavery. Following Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed black man who has been brought back into slavery, Patsey is a slave he meets on his journey to regain his freedom.
Nyong’o won 50 awards for her performance, so it was no surprise when she won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Oscars. After this decisive role, she played in Queen of Katwe in 2016, Black Panther in 2018, and We in 2019, in addition to having a supporting role in the most recent Star wars Trilogy.
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