We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another: as you watch a film unravel, there’s one particular performer you’ve never seen before who sticks out among all the others. Maybe it’s just the way their character is written that makes you want to know more about them, or maybe they just carry themselves, conspicuously or not, in a manner that seems to reveal something new about human interaction or self-presentation that you never suspected. Maybe you feel they’re speaking directly to you, without knowing it, as if you were somehow connecting through the screen. Or perhaps they just simply happen to be really, really, really ridiculously good-looking. Whatever the reason, by the time the film’s finished, you want to keep an eye out for that actor, talk all your fellow movie buff friends’ ears off about how one day they’re going to make it big – and if they do, you’ll congratulate yourself on having been one of those who knew it from the beginning.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of those who did indeed make it big; actors and actresses who wowed the world with their very first on-screen performance and didn’t stop there. To narrow down the number of performances in the list, a few rules will be observed: firstly, these have to constitute the very first time the performer in question appeared on-screen in a fictional role. If their previous credits include guest roles on TV series, short films or various performances in comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, their first film role will not qualify. Secondly, these have to be proper film roles: if their first film role was preceded by jobs as an extra, it will not count either. Finally, because I already discussed it in a previous article celebrating his 100th birthday, Kirk Douglas’s screen debut in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers will not be among those listed.
Now that we’ve established the rules, let’s take a look at the top 10 screen debuts that lit the cinematic world on fire.
- Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game.
We open our list with a pick that does admittedly constitute a bit of a stretch, not because Jaye Davidson’s ground-breaking and still-controversial portrayal of transgender hairdresser Dil isn’t a beautifully nuanced expression of grief and solace – it is – but because Jaye Davidson’s acting career stopped as quickly and abruptly as it had started. Following the international acclaim his performance in The Crying Game justly earned him, Mr. Davidson went on to play an evil version of the Sun-God Ra in Roland Emmerich’s Stargate before turning towards modelling. After appearing in Jiggery Pokery, a TV film no-one appears to have seen, he retired from acting altogether, only making a brief return in 2009 to appear in a short about a Nazi sex doll (yes, really), which elevates his on-screen acting credits to a grand total of 4.
But a film career is a film career, no matter how brief it may be, and this performance alone more than makes up for the scarcity of screen credits. Lost in the stream of parodies, debates and jokes that followed the film’s release is the bittersweet tenderness that emanates from Jaye Davidson as he renders Dil’s journey from heartache to solace and back again as she falls in love with her dead boyfriend’s captor. Beneath the cool nonchalance and flirtatious sashaying, there’s an ocean of sadness that comes through Dil’s eyes in fleeting glimpses until the truth about her new lover’s connection to her old one brings it all out in the open, leading to a lethal merging of her on-stage femme fatale persona with her more emotionally brittle real-life self. It’s a magnificently sensitive, complex performance that deserves to be remembered for more than just one particularly memorable shot.
- Bruno Schleinstein in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser.
The Kaspar Hauser affair is one of those true stories where the actual facts of the case are not nearly as interesting as the ideas and theories raised by the unanswered questions, contradictions and shades of grey surrounding it. Werner Herzog’s masterpiece The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser – whose original German title translates to Every Man For Himself And God Against All – understands this all too well, opting to accept Hauser’s extraordinary claims about his childhood at face value in order to better focus on the challenges his very existence seems to pose to our presuppositions about man and civilization.
All these challenges are formulated, more eloquently than any philosophical dissertation, by Bruno Schleinstein’s central performance. Credited, as he would be in all seven of his on-screen performances, simply as Bruno S., Schleinstein comes to us without any of the reflexive defences professional actors might erect between themselves and the audience. Himself the product of a tragic and deeply troubled childhood frequently spent in mental institutions, he imbues Kaspar with a life’s worth of experience that cannot be conveyed through words or actions alone. Every darting glance, stiff gesture and emphatically-punctuated enunciation is like a strike of a chisel, chipping away superfluous material to reveal a little more of the unfinished, beautifully imperfect creation that is Man. Were these debuts ranked solely by their quality, Bruno Schleinstein’s miraculous performance would easily come first, for there are few other feats of acting in world cinema that expose so much of ourselves with so little visible effort. But cultural impact and the subsequent career of each individual performer also count here, which is why I have started the list with two performances by non-professional actors with very few screen credits. This does not, however, detract from these performances’ greatness. In just under two hours each, they teach us more than most professional actors do in their lifetime.
- Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
At the age of 61, Sydney Greenstreet’s Oscar-nominated turn as The Maltese Falcon’s aptly-named villain Kaspar Gutman is perhaps the latest performance to ever begin a film career – but what a career it was! Not only did Greenstreet provide crucial support to Humphrey Bogart in the two films that completed his transition from familiar-faced heavy to A-list movie star, those two performances would go on to inspire the creation of Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi, thereby ensuring the continuation of his legacy in the form of one of pop culture’s most iconic supporting villains.
Much has been written about the homophobic nature of The Maltese Falcon’s blatantly queer-coded villains, incarnating popular contemporary perceptions of homosexuals as either weak and cowardly or powerful and predatory. If Peter Lorre’s effeminate, limp-wristed Joel Cairo provides perhaps the most defining example of the former characterization, Greenstreet’s affably domineering “Fat Man” illustrates the latter one with a refined charm that’s impossible to ignore. Acting as what Armond White astutely referred to as the villainous trio’s “Papa bear”, Kaspar Gutman counters Bogart’s cold tough-guy machismo with suave aplomb that lends a subliminally sexual dimension to their confrontation scenes. Whether it’s in the politely flirtatious tone in which he compliments Sam Spade’s “straight-talking” (heh), the gently clasp of his guest’s arm with both hands as he leads him to his chair or the suggestive way he fingers his cigar, Gutman is making constant passes at his rival and relishing every minute of it. Watching the two men’s phallic duel is just one of the many pleasures this twisty noir classic has to offer.
- Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple.
Media tycoon, talk show host, news anchor, interviewer, executive producer… if there’s any important job behind and in front of television cameras, Oprah Winfrey has probably done it at least once in her life. But in-between working as a local news anchor and becoming one of the most powerful women in the world, Oprah Winfrey was also a promising young actress who first drew international attention in 1985 with her hard-hitting supporting performance as Sofia Johnson in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
In this 2h33 epic spanning 30 years of a young woman’s life, Winfrey’s role may feel like a relatively modest one but its importance and impact are hard to overstate. As protagonist Celie’s stepdaughter-in-law, Sofia acts as conscience, counterexample and critic of the racist patriarchal society her parent has endured and internalized all her life. Drawing from her own experience of sexual abuse and mistreatment while growing up in a poor Southern family, Winfrey turns Sofia’s anger into a tremendous force of sustenance, humanizing and uplifting an experience that lesser performers would have treated as a mere source of pathos. Looking into her eyes, you see pain but you also see the hope and pride rising from its ashes, and the pledge of better tomorrows they stand for.
- Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing.
Do The Right Thing boasts such a superb cast of instantly-unforgettable characters that it feels unfair to single just one of them out. And yet there’s no denying that Rosie Perez’s vivacious performance as Mookie’s long-suffering girlfriend Tina stands out due to the sheer energy she projects. Everyone remembers the film’s opening sequence, in which she dances to Public Enemy’s Fight The Power with a sensuality that’s almost mocking in its confidence, but that’s just a taste of the experience that is to come.
Do The Right Thing simmers with righteous anger, passion, urgency and an unabated desire for communication – communication with its audience as well as between its characters. Although her character may not be the most politically active or plot-important one in the screenplay, Rosie Perez conveys all these emotions with intelligence, maturity and power that are entirely her own. What could have been a simple “nagging girlfriend” archetype on paper (gifted though he is, Spike Lee has always had trouble writing well-rounded female characters) comes alive as a fully-fledged person, embodying the film’s ideas and values without seemingly trying. How many other supporting characters can you say the same of? And how many of those achieve this by virtue of such perfect casting?
- Jean Seberg in Saint Joan.
It’s really quite remarkable how one historical figure’s very short and abundantly well-documented life can be the object of so many varied interpretations, be it on stage, screen or stained-glass windows. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s standard-setting Passion Of Joan Of Arc to Luc Besson’s fantasy-inspired Milla Jovovich vehicle, Joan Of Arc has been almost everything to everyone: Christian martyr, fraudulent witch, mad fanatic, freedom fighter, nationalist icon… her malleability exceeds that of even the Greek gods and heroes. George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, written in 1923, portrays the Maid of Orléans as a visionary rebel whose steadfast opposition to English rule echoes Shaw’s own anti-establishment stances, with much focus being placed on the misogynistic nature of her persecution by the Church.
For his 1957 film adaptation of the play, Otto Preminger chose to lay this considerable political and cultural burden on the shoulders of newcomer Jean Seberg, who would go on to live a similarly short-but-impactful life as an icon of 1960s avant-garde cinema. This hindsight lends additional poignancy to a performance that positively blossoms before us to reach an incandescent state of grace, elevating it beyond even the film itself. More complex than the title might suggest, her Joan walks a delicate line between innocence and wiliness that muddies the usual assessments of her as either a wild-eyed messianic crusader or a crafty political operator: her stubborn determination in the face of adversity inspires admiration even as it borders on the naive, her unflappable serenity is virtually indistinguishable from delusion and her uncanny ability to speak directly to men’s hearts evidences as much candour as it does canniness. It’s a difficult performance to pull off and Seberg’s inexperience – perceptible in some early scenes – might actually have helped her do it by giving her performance a raw imperfection that heightens Joan’s ambiguous nature. Most cinephiles may remember her selling copies of the New York Herald-Tribune in the streets of Paris, but the adolescent coyness she brought to Joan of Arc will always be Jean Seberg’s most singular triumph.
- Gabourey Sidibe in Precious.
Truth be told, Precious is not a very good film. In pretence of exposing the harsh realities of poor urban-dwelling black American life, it runs a bingo card’s worth of sociological clichés worthy of a Daily Mail cover story. Beneath its superficially humanistic cloak, Precious is really an exploitation film for privileged liberals that wallows in its characters’ misery, framing every tear, snot and scream as if it were a pornographic money shot.
And yet, the film’s shallowness finds a form of partial redemption through the naturalistic performances of its actresses. Comedian Mo’nique went home with a well-earned Oscar for her disturbing portrayal of the titular protagonist’s abusive mother, but the also-nominated Gabourey Sidibe’s achievement should not be forgotten. Without the unselfish compassion distilled by her lead performance, the film would be virtually unwatchable; she walks through the film with the weary posture of a person whom life has all but beaten into submission, yet her glances and vocal inflections send us signs that, though she may not realize it herself, she’s not given up yet and does not want to. Armed with courage and empathy, Sidibe makes Precious an authentic human being that Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay and Lee Daniels’ direction often fail to do right by. If that’s not the mark of an uncommonly gifted actress, what is?
- Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue.
One of the magical things about European cinema is that it provides a space for unlikely acting mavericks to emerge and build their craft across an eclectic range of films in a way very few American actors can. Béatrice Dalle is one such maverick; as famous for her well-publicized run-ins with the law and tumultuous private life as she is for her film career, her public and screen persona leave nobody indifferent. Whether you see her as a uniquely talented firebrand or an attention-seeking shock jock, you can’t deny the very special place she’s crafted for herself in French cinema.
And it all started in Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s hugely popular 1986 adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel of the same name (titled 37.2˚C In The Morning in the original French) in which Dalle’s searing portrayal of a Borderline Personality Disorder-stricken young woman made her a global sensation. Tinging her sensual demeanour with a quiet desperation that becomes more visible during Betty’s manic episodes, she makes Betty a force of creation and destruction in equal measure, without ever settling for a single note. Impulsive self-destruction may have been depicted time and time again by a multitude of talented actresses, but never with such a potent mixture of stylized eroticism and confrontational realism. Looking back at it now, the film may feel a touch dated and overlong but the impact of Dalle’s performance remains as strong as it ever was.
- Richard Widmark in Kiss Of Death.
Despite its popularity among classic film-noir aficionados, Kiss Of Death is a fairly by-the-numbers and mostly forgettable thriller with very little to recommend it. Very little, that is, except for one of the most knock-out débuts ever put to screen, courtesy of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, a psychotic mob hitman seeking revenge on a repentant convict who manipulated into confessing a past murder in exchange for parole.
In an Oscar-nominated performance said to have inspired real-life mobsters and probably more than a few portrayals of the Joker, Widmark terrified audiences with his coal-dark eyes, sharp cheekbones and a particularly ghastly high-pitched giggle that emanated from behind a shiny set of teeth seemingly carved for the purpose of crushing the bones of his victims. Even today, the childlike glee he exudes as he pushes a “squealer’s” wheelchair-bound old mother down the stairs to her death is enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s a performance that single-handedly raises the film above banality, and one that would keep haunting Richard Widmark for the rest of his impressive career.
- Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not.
Really, could it be anyone else? Every on-screen début on this list has impacted our culture in a significant way and their respective actors have all subsequently worked on at least one other major project, yet none of them have stepped into cinematic immortality on their first try quite like Lauren Bacall did in To Have And Have Not. Just think about it: For her very first acting job, she worked under the direction of an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, delivered immortal dialogue co-written by one of America’s great novelists based on a book by another one of America’s great novelist and locked swords (and lips) with one of Hollywood’s hottest male stars, whom she wound up marrying.
And she did it all at the age of 20.
Although a perfectly fine film in its own right, To Have And Have Not is remembered more for the flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse between its two leads than it is for its actual plot, which follows much of the same beats as Casablanca. Intrigue, structure and peripheral characters get stored in an unconscious memory drawer where they dwell undisturbed until some external stimuli jogs them back to us. What we remember instead is Lauren Bacall, her precociously smoky voice and those pitilessly keen eyes of hers, seducing Humphrey Bogart before our very eyes. Even when taking makeup and lighting into account, it’s hard to believe so much wit, maturity and street-smart, seen-it-all cool can be projected so convincingly by so young a person. Even if Bacall had never made another picture, this performance would still have cemented her place among the stars forever. Never has so long and fruitful a career begun so brilliantly, nor are we likely to ever see anything like it in our lifetime.