British stage and screen legend Sir Ralph Richardson made his film debut in the 1933 Boris Karloff horror flick The Ghoul. Over the next 16 years, he made 21 additional movies before earning his first Academy Award nomination for 1949's The Heiress. He played 32 additional big-screen roles – among them his legendary turn as James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night – before earning his second and final Oscar nod, at age 80, for 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. And at that year's ceremony, he lost Best Supporting Actor to an acting novice and professional gynecologist who was appearing in his very first film. Had Richardson's nomination not been a posthumous one, that man might've been pissed.
Okay, probably not. Once you've got a knighthood, I'm guessing all other honors feel mildly ridiculous. But such is the way it occasionally is with the Academy Awards, where some performers wait decades for their first citations, and some hit home runs their first times at bat. The following are examples of the latter: Ten individuals from nine titles released between 1982 to 1996 who all scored Oscar nominations (or, in two cases, wins) for movie debuts made after the performers turned 20. I'm using that age as a starting point because I wrote about Oscar-acknowledged youths Quinn Cummings, Justin Henry, and Tatum O'Neal just last month. And also because if I keep raving about Anna Paquin in The Piano, I'm gonna start looking like a Person of Interest.
Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves: I can understand why someone would want to make her movie debut with a demanding lead for Lars von Trier. What I can't understand is why, after wrapping that demanding lead for the Danish director/provocateur, anyone would want to continue making movies. Wouldn't the experience traumatize you beyond all future interest in performing? Thankfully for film films, Watson's answer was clearly “no,” and she's become an invaluable character-actor presence in works ranging from Gosford Park to War Horse to Chernobyl. It all began, however, with the 28-year-old newbie's jaw-dropping turn in Breaking the Waves, von Trier's undeniably effective, astoundingly depressing 1996 drama about a young wife whose newly paralyzed husband demands that she have sex with other men. Her deliberately masochistic role required the frequently naked Watson to be humiliated, beaten, and raped. She got an Oscar nomination. She deserved one. But a Purple Heart may have been more appropriate.
Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God: As William Hurt was our favorite actor in the fall of 1986, some college friends and I were psyched to see him in Randa Haines' adaptation of the Tony-winning drama about a speech teacher at a school for the deaf. Hurt was traditionally terrific, and his film was funny, touching, and romantic. But on our drive home, all we talked about was the movie's 20-year-old, hearing-impaired star who was striking, witty, and powerful as an angry janitor; we nearly forgot Hurt was around at all. Matlin was so sublimely moving, and shared such stinging chemistry with Hurt, that not only did she receive an Oscar for her first screen appearance, she became the youngest Best Actress in history (a record she still holds) by beating out Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Kathleen Turner, and Sigourney Weaver. To be cited in that company is impressive. To transcend that company is extraordinary.
Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple: It's difficult, cinematically speaking, to remember a time in which Goldberg and Winfrey weren't around. Both were certainly names prior to 1985's Alice Walker adaptation; the former won a Grammy for her one-woman Broadway comedy, and the latter had been a Chicago talk- and morning-show sensation since the early days of 1984. But until the 29-year-old Goldberg and 30-year-old Winfrey stepped in front of Steven Spielberg's cameras, neither had yet made a film – not that you could tell based on their luminous performances. Portraying the abused, pathologically shy Celie in this beloved Southern melodrama, Goldberg was revelatory, discarding nearly all of her boisterous stage energy in favor of a heartbreaking delicacy that gradually morphed into steely self-confidence. As for Winfrey, hoo-boy was she confident, which made it all the harder to watch her joyously fierce Sofia crumble … until a deep, hearty, dinner-table laugh resurrected her, and resurrected us.
Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game: Even 29 years after the release of Neil Jordan's gripping, romantic crime drama, it's still unusual, and rather eyebrow-raising, to see an exposed penis on-screen. Yet I'm not sure the sight of one has ever elicited a bigger gasp than in The Crying Game when Stephen Rea's kidnapper Fergus began seducing Jaye Davidson's chanteuse Dil, Fergus' mouth traveling down the woman's bare midriff until … . Surprise! The moment causes the clearly unprepared, horrified Fergus to run to the bathroom and vomit. At my screening, however, it caused practically the entire auditorium to erupt in shrieks and (relatively) non-judgmental laughter, and everyone instantly got the 1991 movie's marketing campaign that all but begged viewers not to give away The Big Secret – one that I suppose, now, I've totally given away. Then again, in nominating the graceful, mysterious, only-slightly-amateurish 22-year-old Davidson for Best Supporting Actor, so did the motion-picture academy.
Julie Walters in Educating Rita: It was apparently tough to secure financing for Willy Russell's 1983 adaptation of his Pygmalion-esque play, and in an interview in The Guardian, director Lewis Gilbert revealed that Columbia Pictures executives suggested he cast Dolly Parton as his lower-middle-class Cockney lead. Thank goodness that didn't happen. For one thing, it would've been insane. But we also would've been deprived of this smashingly entertaining, Golden Globe-winning debut, a recreation of Walters' lauded stage portrayal that found her effortlessly bantering and sharing poignant affection with a Michael Caine at the top of his game. As the 32-year-old morphs from literary novice to full-fledged scholar, Walters' modern-day Eliza Doolittle is a fast-talking, eccentrically cadenced delight, and Gilbert's and Russell's self-improvement uplift is worth watching anytime. If, however, you've only ever known Walters as a cheeky, middle-aged figure in Billy Elliot, Brooklyn, the Harry Potters, and the Mamma Mia!s, Educating Rita is worth watching immediately.
Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields: It's rare for non-professionals to land major screen roles, and rarer still for those non-professionals to receive Oscar nods. But non-professionals winning Oscars for their film debuts is so rare that, prior to Roland Joffé's 1984 war drama set during Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime, no one had done it since double amputee Harold Russell in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives. Yet Ngor made Russell's club of one a party of two, the 43-year-old Cambodian-American gynecologist playing refugee journalist Dith Pran with such intensity and emotionalism, and such an unforgettably haunted gaze, that you wished the entirety of Joffé's earnest, horrifying, enraging movie had been devoted to Ngor's fascinating character arc and achingly empathetic portrayal. Interestingly, beyond being Ngor's first film, The Killing Fields marked only the second cinematic appearance of another actor who made his film debut mere months before. Who was it? Glad you asked … !
John Malkovich in Places in the Heart: Spike Jonze's wonderfully deranged comedy Being John Malkovich (now streaming on Netflix) features a great running gag: Everyone in it recognizes the actor, but almost no one can remember his name or what they've seen him in. The joke probably wouldn't have worked, though, had more people seen Malkovich's stupendous, pre-Killing-Fields performance in writer/director Robert Benton's Depression-era drama from 1984, in which the 30-year-old played a blind World War I veteran with hushed delicacy and an initially off-putting reticence that kept the role from ever sliding into melancholy or easy sentiment. Even when Places in the Heart finds Malkovich's Mr. Will, gun in hand, protecting Sally Field's farm owner from a Ku Klux Klan assault, there's nothing remotely show-offy about the actor's physical or emotional choices. This was the film, by the way, that inspired Field's oft-mocked “You like me! You like me!” Oscar speech. We really liked Malkovich, too.
Edward Norton in Primal Fear: Over the past several months, accidentally or otherwise, I've revealed significant plot twists to other 20th-century titles in these home-viewing roundups. So why does it still feel too soon to detail the precise nature of Norton's role as an accused murderer in Gregory Hoblit's 1996 thriller? Is it because the first surprise regarding Norton's damaged, stuttering Aaron Stampler – arriving at Primal Fear's halfway point – startles Frances McDormand's psychiatrist, and then Richard Gere's attorney, as much as it does us? Is it because Norton's even-bigger character shock at the finale blows our minds as thoroughly as it does Gere's? Or is it because the 25-year-old's debut performance, as a whole, is so technically adept and ferociously committed that any spoiling of its specifics feels like a disservice to the nasty fun Norton provides? I'm still not sure, but for the moment, my answers are yes, yes, and hell yes.
Glenn Close in The World According to Garp: If it seems that, unlike most current film icons, we never really got to know Close in her youth, it's because we never did: She made her movie debut in George Roy Hill's sprawling, entertaining John Irving adaptation at age 34. Yet Close may also seem eternally not-young (which I hope doesn't read as an insult) because her 1982 World According to Garp role as Robin Williams' unflappable mother – Close being only four years older than Williams – required the actress to span an age range of nearly 40 years. And she pulled off her gradual tradition from 20s to 60s with imposing authority, mordant humor, and an almost regal bearing that hinted at her pre-Garp career as a Tony-nominated stage performer, receiving, as deserved acknowledgment of her gifts, the first of her seven Oscar nominations to date. Close still hasn't won. I thought seven was a lucky number.