By Alan Hurst
It doesn’t happen often but it has happened often enough for it to be the stuff of dreams – hitting the big-time in films in a big way your first time at bat. The people below all had either terrific first years or a career defining film debut that assured considerable award attention and presaged (in most cases) a solid – and sometimes extraordinary – career in films.
Greer Garson – 1939
1939’s Goodbye Mr. Chips was one of the biggest hits in Hollywood’s historic year. It brought an Oscar to lead Robert Donat for a fine performance, although it does show signs of age (James Stewart should have been the winner that year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). This was one of those stories that MGM did so well – it’s a highly sentimental look at decades in a teacher’s life at an all boys school in England. It’s beautifully mounted, nicely directed and very moving. But about halfway through the film Greer Garson shows up for about 20 minutes and suddenly injects the film with energy, wit and warmth. Her impact is galvanizing. You can see why Mr. Chips immediately succumbs to her charms and the character’s premature death is devastating – for him and the audience. With only limited screen time, Garson’s film debut had a tremendous impact on audiences that year. She got a Best Actress nomination for what is clearly a supporting role and found herself at the top of the MGM list of leading actresses within the year. Multiple Oscar nominations and major box office hits followed and she was MGMs leading dramatic actress of the 1940’s.
Lauren Bacall – 1944
Bacall was a model who hit the big time with her first film, 1944’s To Have and Have Not, a fast-paced adventure film set in the Caribbean at the beginning of WWII. She paired well with Humphrey Bogart and she matches him sneer for sneer. Critics and audiences raved – she was hailed as one of the most exciting stars in years and she was never sexier or more enticing. But she had a huge fall from grace with her next film Confidential Agent (1945). It’s a silly film set during the Spanish Civil War and Bacall is a bored English woman in love with Charles Boyer. She’s terrible – it exposed very quickly that she was not yet an actress and it shook her confidence. She recovered with three follow-ups with Bogart and then hit her stride as a stylish light comedienne in the 1950’s. Bacall continued her career right up until she died in 2014 with some excellent work in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Shootist (1976) and finally netting an Oscar nomination as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). She probably achieved her biggest success on Broadway, earning raves for Cactus Flower in 1966 and winning Tony’s for both Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981.
Montgomery Clift -1948
1948 was Montgomery Clift’s breakthrough year. A movie he had made in 1946 – the classic Howard Hawks western Red River with John Wayne – was released in 1948 to acclaim and strong box-office. That was followed by the Fred Zinnemann’s realistic and moving The Search, the story of a young concentration camp survivor determined to find his mother. Clift plays an American soldier who takes him under his wing and tries to help him. Clift came to Hollywood with some strong stage experience but he was just made for the movies. The one-two punch of these films – along with The Heiress the following year, made they strikingly handsome actor a matinee idol. He was also very good actor, winning an Oscar nomination for The Search and getting three subsequent nominations for classics like A Place in the Sun (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). But he had his demons. Never really comfortable with his good looks or his sexuality, he was a drinker. An accident in 1957 caused major physical and mental damage, and Clift was never the same. But for the a few short years between 1948 and 1956, he was one of the best of the new breed.
Leslie Caron – 1951
Gene Kelly was looking for a good dancer with elfin charm for the lead in An American In Paris (1951) and he found it in Leslie Caron. Although this is Kelly’s film all the way, Caron more than holds her own. She’s spectacular in the dance sequences, but she also showed herself to be a good comedienne, very pretty and an actress of depth. Audrey Hepburn got the better roles for most of the decade, but Caron managed a few more hits during her MGM years, particularly Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958), both good films and Caron is excellent in both (she was Oscar nominated for Lili). She really came into her own with two films in the early sixties: Fanny (1961) and The L Shaped Room (1963). The latter is probably her best work, and the one that should have brought her an Oscar. It’s a realistic British drama about a young French woman – unmarried and pregnant – who becomes friends with a young man in the London boarding house where she lives. She has filmed very little since the seventies, but when she does show up she’s still a wonderful, warm and intelligent presence.
Warren Beatty – 1961
After some success in television and Broadway, Warren Beatty became the next big thing with two 1961 films: one good (Splendor in the Grass) and one not so good (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone). Beatty was talented, very good looking and he had a brooding quality that worked for him. I think he’d probably like to forget that The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is on his resume (he’s not very good as the Italian gigolo wooing Vivien Leigh) but he and Natalie Wood set off sparks in Splendor in the Grass. It’s a very strong debut that gave him a large fan base that sustained him until he took off into the stratosphere with Bonnie and Clyde six years later.
Julie Andrews – 1964
Andrews had one of the great first year’s in movie history. She was a major Broadway star (with long runs in The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot) and a top television performer with Tony and Emmy nominations. But she was considered unphotogenic and not box-office when it came time to cast the film version of My Fair Lady (1964). Although she had earned raves in both the New York and London productions and the cast album showcased her spectacular vocals, Warner Brothers cast the safer (and popular) Audrey Hepburn. Andrews’ disappointment didn’t last long. While casting his film version of Mary Poppins, Walt Disney saw her on Broadway in Camelot and decided then and there he had his Mary. The result was the biggest hit of Disney’s career, a role that Andrews played perfectly (winning a Best Actress Oscar), and the launch of one of the big film careers of the sixties. She immediately followed the August 1964 release of Mary Poppins with the more adult and very funny The Americanization of Emily and then, a few months later in early 1965, The Sound of Music. They’re all classics and because of the timing of the film production for both them, they would not have happened if she had been cast in My Fair Lady.
Faye Dunaway -1967
She had some success in New York (both on and off Broadway) but three films all released in 1967 catapulted Faye Dunaway to the top tier. Both Hurry Sundown and The Happening are minor efforts and Dunaway’s roles aren’t major, but she stands out. In Bonnie and Clyde she’s front and centre in a near perfect performance that established her as a beautiful, neurotic and magnetic film presence. This is one of the great films of all time and she’s a major reason why. She followed this with the chic Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and, after a few misfires, came back with a vengeance in the mid seventies with Chinatown (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and her Oscar winning work in Network (1976).
Dustin Hoffman -1967
With the release of The Graduate in late 1967, a generation found its touchstone film and a hero in Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock. He had made his debut in a little film earlier that year called The Tiger Makes Out which did nothing, but The Graduate took him to the top where he basically stayed for the next 30 years. Never the most likable of personalities, Hoffman nevertheless tapped into something real with his performance in the The Graduate and, in the course of 12 months, went from struggling actor to competing in the Oscar race with the likes of Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy. Hits like Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lenny (1974), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Tootsie (1982) followed.
Barbra Streisand – 1968
Even before she made her first film, Streisand was one of the major stars of the 1960’s. When filming started in 1967 on Funny Girl she had already had two major Broadway successes (and two Tony nominations), major recording success (with multiple Grammys) and she had revolutionized the television variety genre with a series of specials (and winning an Emmy). But for Streisand being a star meant being a movie star. With the release in 1968 of the film version of her Broadway hit Funny Girl, she was. It truly is one of the major debuts in movie history and, thankfully, it’s a wonderful adaptation and remains one of Streisand’s top achievements as an actress. She won the Best Actress Oscar that year (in a tie with Katharine Hepburn). Before this was released she had already been signed to film Hello, Dolly! (1969) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Her ascent to being the biggest female movie stars of the 1970’s was assured.
Goldie Hawn -1969
In 1969 Goldie Hawn was enjoying her TV breakthrough as the breakout star of the Laugh-In ensemble when she was cast in the adaptation of the Broadway hit Cactus Flower. Walther Matthau and Ingrid Bergman were the leads in this story of middle age love and commitment, but it was Hawn who walked away with the movie, the reviews and, ultimately, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Her deft and slightly off-centre portrayal of Matthau’s much younger mistress showed she was much more than the giggly blonde of Laugh-In and she’s both very funny and moving as the naïve Toni. Hawn’s impact was considerable and within a year she was clearly going to be among the top stars of the 1970’s.
Bette Midler – 1979
Bette Midler was one of the major pop successes of the 1970’s. She was both a modern rocker and throwback to the early days of burlesque and vaudeville. She had a wicked sense of humor, dynamic stage presence and a way with a song that could get you jumping or move you to tears. She was almost cast in 1975’s The Fortune with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and there was also talk of her in the Talia Shire role in Rocky (1976). Thankfully she and her team waited for the right vehicle, 1979’s The Rose. This was thinly veiled version of Janis Joplin’s story and it allowed Midler to do everything she was capable of doing – she made you laugh, cry, cheer, and the musical performances tore up the screen. Her film career stumbled a bit in the early eighties, but she came back strong with a series of lightweight but fun comedies later in the decade. Unfortunately she’s never again had the chance to go as deep as she did here.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.