Most actors wait a lifetime for the opportunity to win an Oscar. They work hard throughout decades of their careers, picking good and bad parts alike, until they luck out and an affluence of things lead them to the Academy Award win. As the most notorious award in Hollywood, the Oscars are a sign of status and recognition unlike any other in the industry.
The guys and girls in our list, though, didn’t have to wait at all. They’ve all won their Oscars in their feature film debuts – some of them were really young performers whose careers were suddenly thrust into the limelight, some of them are Broadway or TV stars who were more than welcomed into the world of cinema.
The one thing they uniformly are, though, is great.
10. Eva Marie Saint in On The Waterfront (1954)
Eva Marie Saint was already casually called “the Helen Hayes of television” when she made her feature film debut in which would turn out to be a legendary career. In 1954, she was a twice Emmy-nominated 30 year old playing against the legendary Marlon Brando in an Eliza Kazan thriller about a dock worker witnessing a murder and becoming obsessed with vindicating the victim’s sister, played by Marie Saint.
It’s a wonderful film that won 8 Oscars, and Saint brings gravitas and drama to her role without caving to melodramatic gestures that were in vogue back then. She’d turn in celebrated performances after that in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain, but her most enduring image onscreen is still of her debut role.
9. Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
Shirley Booth would win her Academy Award at the age of 54, making her the oldest actor on this list. Truth is Booth was really one of the great stage actresses in American history, making her debut in 1925 and winning three Tonys in her career, including one for the stage version of Come Back, Little Sheba, later adapted to the screen, for which she also won the Oscar. In the film, she played half of a couple whose morose life is shaken when they take in an attractive young lodger.
Even after such a successful feature film debut, Booth still preferred to work on the stage, and eventually on TV. In 1961, she became the star of legendary sitcom Hazel, which ran for 154 episodes and earned her two Primetime Emmy awards. She only did four more films in her career, which is really something for an Oscar winner.
8. Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon (1973)
Not unlike Paquin, Tatum O’Neal never seemed to overcome the shadow of her debut role in Paper Moon, which made her the youngest person to ever win an Oscar, at age 10. The difference is Tatum was born into show business, and starred alongside her own father, Ryan O’Neal, in said film.
As Addie, a child being tutored by a notorious con artist in Depression-era America, O’Neal has that sincere quality of the best child actors, and communicates to the spectator the stark contrast between the sweet plot of the film and the dark reality of the time it portrays. Her subsequent roles did not impress, with perhaps the exception of her 39-episode stint in Rescue Me.
7. Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993)
Anna Paquin was 11 years old when director Jane Campion, impressed by her rendition of a monologue in the audition process for her film The Piano, cast her as the daughter of a mute piano player struggling to come to terms with an arranged marriage. That the film became such a hit with critics and audiences alike was not what Paquin’s parents expected, especially that their young daughter would win an Oscar for her role.
Truth be told, Paquin is extraordinary in the film, and has rarely performed in this level since. She’s a sensitive, instinct-driven performer to this day, and her scenes with Holly Hunter still evoke one of the richest emotional experiences recently put to film.
6. Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2006)
Jennifer Hudson placed seventh on her stint in American Idol, back in 2004. Seventh-place Idol contestants don’t usually win Oscars, let me tell you – Hudson, however, dazzled director Bill Condon and won a part in musical Dreamgirls, completely obfuscating Beyoncé herself in the role of Effie White, the powerhouse singer who’s sidelined by her producer boyfriend when the trio she sings in starts to take off.
Effie is, of course, a classic stage musical part, and Hudson was a casting decision met with controversy, since she had no previous acting experience. However, her intense performance elevated Condon’s film to a different level of critical praise, as she infused the story with vibrancy and urgency, making people care about the fate of her character.