Anytime an actor gives an incredible performance, audiences and critics alike will naturally appreciate and praise them. Actors make an even bigger impression if those performances come from a feature film debut, especially a lead role.
From children and ingenues to theater actors and young performers just starting, no shortage of actors have dazzled moviegoers with their first big screen roles.
1. Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins (1964)
gneImage Credit: Buena Vista Distribution.As the story goes, Walt Disney saw Julie Andrews perform in Camelot. He offered her title role in his film Mary Poppins, willing to wait until the birth of her daughter to begin production. Though performing on stage will prepare an actor in their craft and stamina, film and theater acting require different talents. Andrews astonished everyone with her role as the practically perfect nanny. From singing upbeat tongue-twisters and gentle lullabies to her sarcastic wit and understated emotion, Andrews's first movie goes down in history as one of the most iconic film debuts.
Ironically, Mary Poppins came out in the same year as My Fair Lady. Despite Andrews playing the role of Eliza Doolittle on stage, Jack Warner cast Audrey Hepburn instead. During her Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Actress, Andrews humorously thanked Warner for making her win possible. Andrews also won the Best Actress Oscar, notably over greats like Anne Bancroft, Sophia Loren, and Debbie Reynolds.
2. Sean Astin and Josh Brolin – The Goonies (1985)
It might surprise contemporary fans to learn that Sean Astin and Josh Brolin made their film debuts in the 80s classic The Goonies. As onscreen brothers, the two felt like real siblings with their ribbing, bickering, and affection for each other. Individually, they nail their characters.
Astin embodies a childlike enthusiasm and thirst for adventure. At the same time, Brolin perfectly encapsulates the role of the annoyed but protective eldest in the group. What they lack in experience, they make up for in an unspoiled, naturalistic presence. Director Richard Donner brought out the best in them.
3. Lauren Bacall – To Have and Have Not (1944)
Watching Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, it boggles the mind that she'd never made a film. Bacall exudes an alluring, seductive, but vulnerable demeanor, holding her own with her onscreen love interest, Humphrey Bogart. Acting with the legend proved to be professionally and personally successful. She earned acclaim for the role, while she and Bogart formed an undeniable connection that eventually led to marriage.
4. Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween (1978)
Although Curtis had appeared in a few TV shows in the 1970s, she did not grace the big screen until 1978's Halloween. Curtis herself credits getting fired from the series Operation Petticoat as leading to her availability for the career-making role of Laurie Strode.
As the film's protagonist, she demonstrates an innocence and genuine fear necessary for the horror genre. Indeed, the film only works as well as it does because of her character. Curtis's debut shows that when a door closes, sometimes a window opens- and often one towards a brighter future.
5. Sydney Greenstreet – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
When viewers think of film debuts, the mind will typically think of kids or young adults. The formidable actor Sydney Greenstreet defies that thought process. Not a novice to acting, having done theater since the early 1900s, Greenstreet made his feature film debut in The Maltese Falcon at the age of 62.
Though his size contributes to his imposing presence as Kasper Gutman, it takes talent to come across as a shrewd and dangerous antagonist genuinely. Greenstreet more than delivers, and The Maltese Falcon remains a seminal role in his career.
6. Anne Hathaway – The Princess Diaries (2001)
The phrase “fresh-faced ingenue” applies to Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries. Of course, even in Hollywood, one does not have lasting success based purely on their looks. More than anything, Hathaway's natural, breath-of-fresh-air demeanor charms viewers.
Mia's journey from an awkward high school student who feels invisible to the somewhat less awkward princess with judgmental eyes on her feels believable and poignant. Her subsequent career success surprises few after such a delightful introduction.
7. Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls (2006)
American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson demonstrates that one does not have to win that illustrious title to achieve great success. Indeed, in the role of Effie White in the musical Dreamgirls, Hudson won an even more prestigious award- an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Her song “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” alone showcases such profound emotion as she completely bares her soul. But her entire performance knocks everyone's socks off.
8. Gene Kelly – For Me and My Gal (1942)
Many classic musical fans will be astonished to discover Gene Kelly made his film debut in For Me and My Gal. With Judy Garland by his side, Kelly looks like a film veteran. His charming bravado and exceptional dancing skills match his nuanced and quieter moments, not to mention his lovely chemistry with Garland.
Kelly credits the actress with helping him transition from theater to film. But movie acting still requires natural talent, and his first film showcased his innate abilities tenfold.
9. Edward Norton – Primal Fear (1996)
When moviegoers think about film debuts that blew everyone away right from the get-go, Edward Norton quickly comes to mind. In Primal Fear, Norton plays an altar boy on trial for murder, taking on a southern drawl and essentially two vastly different characters. He elicits tremendous sympathy in one moment while in another, icy chills.
Norton holds his own in the stacked cast that includes Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Alfre Woodard, and Frances McDormand. He steals the show. The only actor from the film to receive award recognition, he earned an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for his impeccable performance.
10. Lupita Nyong'o – 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Some actors make audiences laugh with their first films, while others make everyone cry. For Lupita Nyong'o, she breaks the heart of everyone who watches her devastating performance in 12 Years A Slave. In the role of Patsey, she exhibits a strength no one should ever have to endure. And in the moment when she asks for something as innocuous as soap, her breakdown makes it difficult to believe she'd never done a film.
While she had done some television and a few short films, Nyong'o's first full-length movie role impressed, winning a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
11. Tatum O'Neal – Paper Moon (1973)
While most ten-year-old kids only dream of starring in a movie, Tatum O'Neal made history in her first-ever onscreen role, starring alongside her father, Ryan O'Neal, in Paper Moon. Carrying (and some would say stealing) the film, she leaves audiences stunned with her natural charisma. Her humor and tough-as-nails attitude demonstrate a maturity far beyond her years and experience.
Only one word could describe O'Neal's performance: remarkable. And like many of her counterparts on this list, she impressed Oscar voters. Her win for Best Supporting Actress feels well deserved and marks a significant moment in cinema history. She remains the youngest competitive Oscar winner.
12. Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
While Dev Patel's excellent performance did not garner the individual acclaim that Slumdog Millionaire did as a whole, his performance still stands out as one of the finest feature film debuts. As the adult portrayal of Jamal, a winner of India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Patel exudes the necessary sweetness, quiet strength, and inspiring spirit that gives the film its heartbeat.
Though the television show Skins first introduced audiences to Patel, Slumdog Millionaire put him on the map and transformed the actor into an award-worthy star.
13. Anna Paquin – The Piano (1993)
No one weaves dramatic tales or cries out in fits of frustration, fear, anger, or devastation, quite like Anna Paquin in The Piano. At only nine years old (as confirmed by Paquin to People), Paquin helps carry the film, often having to speak on behalf of her mute mother (Holly Hunter).
Her voice echoes and anchors the film so beautifully that many may doubt this movie to be her first onscreen acting job, having only done a voice performance for the American dubbing of Castle in the Sky. She impressed viewers everywhere, including Academy voters who awarded her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar against Holly Hunter (for another film), Emma Thompson, Rosie Perez, and Winona Ryder. Talk about a remarkable achievement.
14. Chris Pine – The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)
Although Pine's career has reached far beyond this G-rated family film, no one should deny the greatness of his first onscreen role. Portraying the charming, scheming love interest Nicholas, Pine charms his way into Princess Mia's (Anne Hathaway) and the audience's hearts. His authenticity, comedic timing, and romantic magnetism made viewers take notice instantly, proving that any film can elicit a worthwhile debut.
15. Natalie Portman- Léon: The Professional (1994)
Natalie Portman‘s astounding onscreen debut goes to dark territory, portraying a child who ironically finds safety with a hit man after corrupt police murder her family. Her sharp-tongued but, deep down, fragile character has a maturity beyond her age.
Truthfully, her attempts at grown-up behavior stem from her horrific surroundings and survival instincts, which act as a mask for the child still there. Portman's innate ability shines through, displaying a raw, natural talent that few her age have. Her ability to emote and her range can only be called a revelation.
16. Alan Rickman – Die Hard (1988)
Although Rickman did theater and TV since the 1970s, movies did not enter his radar until the late 1980s. And while audiences now consider Alan Rickman's role as Hans Gruber an iconic villain performance, he felt uncertain. He nearly turned down the role at the time.
Lucky for fans, he did accept the part. And indeed, his first movie role cemented Rickman's place in film history. His cold, chilling, and in-control demeanor, combined with the distinctive timbre of his voice, create an unforgettable performance.
17. Jason Schwartzman – Rushmore (1998)
Discovering Jason Schwartzman‘s first onscreen role shocks viewers–not from the content but from the fact that he'd done nothing before. That unspoiled energy he brings, the pointed humor, and deadpan line delivery served him well in the first of many collaborations with director Wes Anderson. Sometimes, actors and directors click and bring out the best in each other. While Schwartzman's talents go beyond his work with Anderson, this first role set the stage and left an everlasting impression.
18. Dominic Sessa- The Holdovers (2023)
Filmgoers will take notice if a young performer can hold their own with a veteran actor like Paul Giamatti. In The Holdovers, Dominic Sessa breathes relatable, touching life into his role of a teenager left at school for the holiday break. He showcases a smart-mouthed, wounded, and brilliant character with great humor, poignancy, and nuanced layers. Sessa's performance proves far from one note, making it another notable feature film debut.
19. Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit (2010)
True Grit represents one of those rare occasions where the remake surpasses the original movie. That applies to Hailee Steinfeld's performance as well. As the tenacious, courageous Mattie, the teenager carries the film as much as her co-star, Jeff Bridges.
The audience sees the narrative through her eyes, and she gives a relatable, rich performance that not only impresses because of her age but tugs at the heartstrings. For her exceptional debut, Steinfeld earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
20. Barbra Streisand – Funny Girl (1968)
Making the transition from theater to film can be a daunting task. But viewers would never know that based on Barbra Streisand's first movie where she reprises her stage role in Funny Girl. Any fan would not be surprised at her exuberant, show-stopping musical performances such as “Don't Rain on My Parade.”
But the more intimate moments should astonish viewers even more because these prove to be much different than what actors do on stage. Playing to the camera instead of the balcony, Streisand puts her heart and soul into every frame with witty humor and gentle vulnerability. It remains an incredible film debut and another richly awarded one. Streisand won Best Actress, tying with the legendary Katharine Hepburn.
21. Jacob Tremblay – Room (2015)
With only some minor television work and a small voice role in The Smurfs 2, the world first saw this actor's innate greatness in 2015's Room. And as far as child performances go, Jacob Tremblay's beautiful, innocent, heart-wrenching acting matches his onscreen mother (Best Actress winner Brie Larson), beat for beat.
He portrays a boy who knows nothing of the outside world and must eventually unlearn everything. That would be difficult for anyone, let alone a small child. But Tremblay demonstrates a tremendous amount of profundity and authenticity. He helps make the film compelling and devastating, imprinting his performance on the hearts of every viewer.
22. Orson Welles – Citizen Kane (1941)
Few actors have a place in film history like Orson Welles, especially in their feature film debuts. With only a few shorts and bit parts under his belt, his proper introduction to Hollywood came with Citizen Kane, a film he also directed and co-wrote. Welles revolutionized cinema with his innovative directing techniques. But his performance as Charles Foster Kane deserves just as much praise, especially considering he'd never starred in a feature film. He commands the screen and leaves an indelible mark.
23. Owen and Luke Wilson – Bottle Rocket (1996)
Having both previously played in the short version of the story, brothers Owen and Luke Wilson made their simultaneous full-length film debut in director Wes Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket. Both embody the offbeat, understated humor featured In Anderson's films. And they also both have such a distinctive presence, different from the average performer, that viewers cannot help but sit up and take notice and marvel at Owen and Luke's inherent charisma and comedic timing.
24. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey – Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Within the first few minutes of Kate Winslet's screen time in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, viewers saw a star in the making. In her big screen debut, the gifted actress portrays a feisty, outspoken young woman who develops an obsessive friendship with another girl played by the equally captivating Melanie Lynskey.
Soon, their dream world envelops them into unhealthy territory, leading to disturbing behavior. But it takes performers of exceptional ability to elicit a tinge of sympathy amidst their unsettling reality. Heavenly Creatures laid the groundwork for both their careers with two great film debuts. Winslet had that “it” factor from the beginning. It took Lynskey longer to earn proper respect, but no one could deny her outstanding beginnings.
25. Reese Witherspoon- The Man in the Moon (1991)
Although a lesser-known film, Reese Witherspoon‘s first-ever onscreen role in The Man in the Moon still represents a significant and beautiful debut. As a teenage girl experiencing the adolescent pangs of unrequited love and emerging womanhood, Witherspoon delivers a genuine, delicate, and intimate performance that any aspiring young actor could admire and learn from. She wears her heart on her sleeve and gives one of the most sensitive film introductions ever put to screen.