Movie Article

Beginner's Luck

Getting an Oscar nod on the first try -- Jennifer Hudson follows in the footsteps of Barbra Streisand, Edward Norton, and Orson Welles

There is no dream more ecstatically American than overnight stardom. It's practically written into the national rule book: To a culture built on celebrity worship, ''life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'' means getting discovered at Schwab's, or writing a best-seller, or becoming the next American Idol.

Or getting a shot at Oscar your first time at the plate. When Jennifer Hudson arrives at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 25, hoping to win a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her take-no-prisoners performance in Dreamgirls, she'll be the latest in a long line of instant kings and queens — actors who were nominated or won statuettes for their debut film performance.

For Hudson, this represents a rare second chance — she didn't win Idol, remember? — and the scary part is that Academy history offers no clear precedent. There have been first-timers who've gone on to superstardom and there have been those who've vanished from the face of cinema, never to be heard from again. Where have you gone, Miliza Korjus?

The bulk of debuting nominees, though, go on to solid, hardworking lives in show business, their splashy entries setting the stage for rewarding if not necessarily high-profile careers. Take Gale Sondergaard, who won the very first Best Supporting Actress Oscar, handed out in 1937, for her performance as nasty Claude Rains' even nastier wife in the epic picaresque Anthony Adverse.

Sondergaard was no ingenue but a stage actress in her late 30s who had followed her director husband to Hollywood and reluctantly taken a film role. Her win for Anthony typed her in villainous roles, but she was choosy, even walking away from The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West when the studio wanted to ugly up the character.

Other actors used their first-time wins to prosper in the backlots. Mercedes McCambridge debuted in the original All the King's Men in 1949, won Best Supporting Actress, and was off on a run of fine, ferocious character parts in Johnny Guitar, Giant, and as the voice of Satan in The Exorcist. Shirley Booth's tour de force as a deluded housewife in 1952's Come Back, Little Sheba resulted in a Best Actress statue, a handful of big-screen follow-ups, and a well-deserved payday playing the title maid in the TV sitcom Hazel.

Likewise, supporting nominations for debuting actors Sydney Greenstreet (the ''fat man'' of The Maltese Falcon, 1941), Maureen Stapleton (Lonelyhearts, 1958), and sultry Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull, 1980) led to busy careers if not Oscar gold (except for Stapleton, who was nominated in the category three more times and finally won for 1981's Reds).

Fame doesn't always return Oscar's call. Do the names Maggie McNamara, Diane Varsi, and Catherine Burns ring any bells? They were nominated for, respectively, The Moon Is Blue (Best Actress, 1953), Peyton Place (Supporting Actress, 1957), and Last Summer (Supporting Actress, 1969) and rarely followed through with films of note.

John Dall (nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1945's The Corn Is Green) is known to Hitchcock fans for Rope and to B-movie buffs for Gun Crazy and...that's about it. If not for boyfriend Clint Eastwood providing gainful employment in the 1970s, Sondra Locke (nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1968's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) might be similarly forgotten.

And then there's the singular case of Miyoshi Umeki, Best Supporting Actress winner for her role as GI Red Buttons' wife in Sayonara (1957) and the first Asian actor to win in Academy history. A popular singer in her native Japan, where she appeared in only one small role, Umeki translated her victory into one more half-decent film, the 1961 musical Flower Drum Song, a handful of supporting roles, and the part of Mrs. Livingston in the TV boomer classic The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Umeki is the most obvious example of what might be called Oscar Exotica: first-time film actors who get nominated — and occasionally win — for having the good luck to be so believably foreign. Greece's Katina Paxinou (1943 Supporting Actress winner for For Whom the Bell Tolls) falls into this category, as does France's Colette Marchand (nominated for 1952's Moulin Rouge), Tahiti's Jocelyne LaGarde (nominated for 1966's Hawaii), and the late Haing S. Ngor, who won Best Supporting Actor for 1984's The Killing Fields after essentially reliving his Cambodian genocide experiences.

Times have changed: Ngor was able to sustain a decent acting career in addition to his humanitarian work before his untimely 1996 death. The latest example of first-time Oscar Exotica, 2004 Best Actress nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), is already sampling a much wider range of roles than her forebears.

There are also the debuts that are exotic for the personal story either behind the screen or on it. Academy brass made sure Harold Russell got an honorary award for ''bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans'' in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives because they worried that the nonprofessional, who had lost both hands in WWII, would be overlooked for Best Supporting Actor. They shouldn't have hedged their bets: Russell won in that category as well and went home with two statuettes.

Similarly, Marlee Matlin's Best Actress win for 1986's Children of a Lesser God had the killer emotional component of a young deaf actress playing out the problems of the hearing-impaired on the big screen. The performance was eminently worthy on its own terms, though, and two decades on, Matlin is still with us in TV shows like The West Wing and The L Word. By contrast, newcomer Jaye Davidson appeared to have flown in from Mars as the cross-dressing hero/heroine of 1992's The Crying Game — and after losing Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven he flew right back again.

Another subsection of film newbies tapped by the Academy might be termed Visitors From Another Medium: performers who have established mastery in a different field and then dropped into movies to show what they can do. Opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, nominated for 1930's The Rogue Song, was the first to turn this trick, and other nominees have come from the world of ballet (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne in 1977's The Turning Point), the British stage (Vivien Merchant in 1966's Alfie and Janet Suzman in 1971's Nicholas and Alexandra), American television (Oprah Winfrey in 1985's The Color Purple), and pop music (Diana Ross, nominated for Best Actress in 1972's Lady Sings the Blues).

Only twice has a debuting Visitor From Another Medium won the Oscar and gone on to greater glory in the movies, and both winners came from Broadway. For Julie Andrews, the Best Actress Oscar for 1964's Mary Poppins was sweet revenge. Her 1956 stage portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the original My Fair Lady had made her the toast of New York, but Andrews was passed over for the 1964 movie version, when Jack Warner went with Audrey Hepburn, an established movie star who lacked the newcomer's vocal chops. Andrews accepted Disney's offer to play P.L. Travers' magical nanny and her first screen performance proved to be the spoonful of sugar her career needed. Hepburn wasn't even nominated for My Fair Lady.

Conversely, no one short of General Patton and the Seventh Army was going to keep Barbra Streisand from re-creating her 1964 Broadway triumph in Funny Girl. Columbia wanted someone better-known to play legendary stage comedian Fanny Brice, but Brice's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark, stuck by Streisand, who already had a reputation as an unstoppable force of nature on screen and off. Streisand somehow managed to become a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy even before 1968's Funny Girl was nominated, and lucky for her she did. In the most notable case of an Oscar tie in Academy history, the Best Actress statue went to both Streisand and Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter.

At 26, Streisand was no kid, but she was new to moviegoers. Genuine children have often been nominated for Oscars, though — and in two cases have won for their first appearance on film. Tatum O'Neal, in fact, remains the youngest person to ever win a competitive Oscar: She was 9 when she appeared opposite her father, Ryan O'Neal, in 1973's con-artist comedy-drama Paper Moon, and 10 when she accepted her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The category that year was a study in opposites, with O'Neal and 15-year-old Linda Blair at one end of the spectrum and 63-year-old Hollywood legend Sylvia Sidney at the other.

Other young first-timers have been nominated — from Mary Badham in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird to Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2003's Whale Rider — but so far the only other debuting moppet to win has been 11-year-old Anna Paquin as Holly Hunter's daughter in 1993's thundering period romance The Piano. Having nabbed the role by tagging along to her older sister's audition, Paquin astounded critics, audiences, and her own parents with the rich maturity of her performance. When she unexpectedly beat out the likes of Winona Ryder and Emma Thompson, though, she accepted the Oscar like the awestruck tweener she was.

Paquin has gone on to a promising career in films like 25th Hour and the X-Men movies. With his Best Supporting Actor nomination in 1999's The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment's career may have peaked. While many moviegoers thought he was a first-timer, the young actor had actually already appeared in five films, making him a prime example of the Faux Debut Nominee. Other not-quite-neophytes include winners Audrey Hepburn (1953's Roman Holiday was really her eighth film) and Geoffrey Rush (1996's Shine was his fifth).

On the other hand, there are Oscar nominees for whom we'll happily overlook a minor discrepancy. So what if Dustin Hoffman had a tiny role in The Tiger Makes Out, released a few months before The Graduate made him a superstar and Best Actor nominee? That Whoopi Goldberg appeared — oh-so-briefly — in one film before anchoring 1985's The Color Purple? That Goldie Hawn played ''Giggly Girl'' in a Disney comedy two years before winning Best Supporting Actress in 1969's Cactus Flower? Or that Alan Arkin had a throwaway part in a throwaway film called Calypso Heat Wave nearly a decade before earning a Best Actor nod for the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!? Count them in if you want to stick to the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

If you choose to stick to the letter, there are plenty of marvelous new faces, many of whom went on to become established marquee names. Darkly brooding men have tended to be nominated their first times out: Paul Muni, short-listed for 1928's The Valiant, John Garfield in 1938's Four Daughters, Orson Welles in 1941's Citizen Kane, Montgomery Clift in 1948's The Search. Oscar likes new British actresses, too, from Greer Garson (nominated for 1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips) to Emily Watson (1996's Breaking the Waves), and it loves to honor a scene-stealer. As the vicious Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death, a young Richard Widmark pushed a wheelchair-bound old lady down a flight of stairs, and you can bet that got the Academy's attention.

Likewise, who was that smart, tart blond guttersnipe threatening to swipe Gaslight (1944) out from under Ingrid Bergman's nose? None other than an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury. Bergman won Best Actress that year, but Lansbury, who lost Best Supporting Actress to the long-established Ethel Barrymore, launched a career that continues to this day.

On the Waterfront's Eva Marie Saint practically won Best Supporting Actress in 1955 by popular consent, since her Cinderella story — from small TV roles to holding her own against Marlon Brando — overshadowed the competition. Saint's Edie Doyle is more than arguably a leading role, but in an early example of category-hedging, producer Sam Spiegel successfully campaigned her right out of Best Actress, where Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn were duking it out. (Kelly took the crown for The Country Girl.)

Sometimes a bright young thing gets nominated for his or her first role and loses, only to score again another year. José Ferrer caught Oscar's notice for his debut in 1948's Joan of Arc, then won only three years later as Cyrano de Bergerac. Edward Norton stunned Academy voters into nominating him for Best Supporting Actor as a duplicitous choirboy in 1996's Primal Fear, but while he lost to Jerry Maguire's Cuba Gooding Jr., who doubts that Norton will someday hold an Oscar in his hand?

In other words, the talent is there and the choices are smart; in Norton's case Academy Awards may be close to superfluous. And it's possible, too, that winning an Oscar for your first film can be, if not a curse, then a glory an actor never fully escapes.

At 20, Timothy Hutton was the youngest person to ever win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his riveting turn as the suicidal son in 1980's Ordinary People. (He still holds the record.) Maybe it's the actor's mournful gravitas or, more likely, his penchant for choosing tough dramas like 1983's Daniel over crowd-pleasers like Risky Business (Tom Cruise was cast only after Hutton turned the role down), but his current, quite healthy career as a character actor can't help but seem a letdown after that early promise.

In other words: Be careful what you wish for, Jennifer Hudson. Even if you deserve it.

Originally posted Jan 26, 2007 Published in issue #918-919 Feb 02, 2007 Order article reprints
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