To some extent, the Oscars favor experience. For one, making a movie is really hard, and you tend to need to accumulate a few under your belt before you know what you’re doing. For another, name recognition can be helpful when it comes to people voting for you: Academy members are more likely to tick your box if they’ve ticked your box before. You just have to look at this year, where three of the directors of the eight Best Picture-nominated movies are over 65, and none have been directing for less than a decade (Lenny Abrahamson is the "newest," but even he made four movies before “Room,” the first in 2004).
It’s not always this way, though. For all their flaws, the Academy are capable of recognizing a first-time filmmaker in the right circumstances, and in part of our series of features in the run-up to this year’s Oscars next Sunday (read about the best roles of this year’s acting nominees here, and the best and worst follow-ups to Oscar winners here), we’ve decided to highlight ten of the best times that they did. Below you’ll find 10 of our favorite debut directors that earned Best Director nominations from across Academy history. Let us know what you think.
Oh, and speaking of the Academy’s flaws, they’ve never nominated a first-time female director, ever. In fact, only four women filmmakers have ever been nominated: of them, Sofia Coppola was the newest, with her second feature, “Lost In Translation,” picking up the nod. So if this list looks like a sausage fest, perhaps it just further illustrates the point the industry we cover has a long way to go.
Orson Welles - “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Well, obviously. Orson Welles’ first feature as director might have only been a middling success on release, disappointing at the box office, it’s now frequently called the greatest film ever made, and certainly marks a sort of gold standard for first-time filmmakers, not least because the prodigious Welles was just 25 when it was released. Put together after studio RKO rejected his first two proposals, ‘Kane’ was a thinly-veiled biopic of media magnate Randolph William Hearst, viewing a ruthless tycoon through the prism of those who knew him. As ambitious as you’d expect from a man who had the world at his feet at such a young age, it’s been endlessly copied and homaged since (there’s an entire generation who probably came to know it through “The Simpsons” before they ever saw an actual frame), but remains as fresh as a daisy when you watch it now. Welles simply shows almost no interest in fitting into a pre-fitting Hollywood mould, experimenting with time, camerawork, tone and genre, and while it’s a gorgeous showcase for, first and foremost, Welles himself, it’s never anything less than entertaining. Hearst’s efforts to suppress the film were mostly successful: the film lost money, permanently damaged Welles’ career as a filmmaker, and despite nine nominations, it won only a single Oscar, with bloc voting by screen extras preventing him from winning the rest.
Delbert Mann - “Marty” (1955)
Director Delbert Mann isn’t talked about so much today — none of his films are particularly hip, or referenced by young indie upstarts. But he had a successful career throughout the 1950s and 1960s, taking in films like “Separate Tables” and “That Touch Of Mink,” and had one of the most striking debuts here, Academy-wise at least: not only was his debut feature “Marty” nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it won both. Mann began directing first in theater and then in TV, and it was a well-received teleplay he’d directed as part of “The Philco Television Playhouse” on NBC that landed him his first movie job when he was asked to direct the big-screen version. Paddy Chayefsky (future writer of “Network,” who also broke through here) returned to again pen the script, while the movie saw Ernest Borgnine replace Rod Steiger in the title role as a socially awkward, terminally single butcher who falls in love with a schoolteacher (Betsy Blair), only for his family and friends to try and sabotage the potential match. It’s a gentle, low-key picture, to the extent that you almost can’t believe it had such mainstream success, at least until you see it: Chayefsky’s screenplay so deftly draws drama out of its modest set-up, and Mann so brilliantly juggles tones, and captures real Bronx life, and the performances are so likeable and authentic that you immediately understand. Mann never reached this kind of success again, but given it was only one of two films (along with “The Lost Weekend”) to win the Palme D’Or and the Oscar, and it was his first film, how could he?
Sidney Lumet - “12 Angry Men” (1957)
Like Mann, Sidney Lumet came up through theater, then television, before getting to make his first movie. Unlike “Marty,” “12 Angry Men” didn’t win the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did lead to one to one of the all-time great careers for its helmer, who made nearly a movie a year for the next half-century, including any number of classics. And one of those classics is undoubtedly his first film. Adapted from Reginald Rose’s play, it could have been something ultra-stagy: a single-room drama about a jury debating the innocence, or otherwise, of a young kid accused of murdering his father, who are gradually swayed from their prejudices by juror no. 8 (Henry Fonda). It’s, in places, overly-dialectic and on the nose (the script insists on making each juror have some kind of backstory that ties to the case), but it’s so beautifully acted by everyone, and such a powerful microcosm of humanity, or at least the male half of it, that the film glosses over the clunkier bits. And Lumet excelled with a tough job, to make the situation cinematic, cranking up the claustrophobia — he even shrunk the set down as production, shot chronologically, went on — and ensuring that his emphasis went on the faces of his extraordinary crew of character actors. Despite its modesty, it went on to Best Picture and Best Director nominations, though Lumet would sadly never win the latter prize.
Though arriving nine years later, “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” had a similar impact to “12 Angry Men” — an adaptation of a stage hit that launched its filmmaker, the late, great Mike Nichols, to a five-decade career numbering among one of Hollywood’s most memorable. By the time he was offered the movie, Nichols had gone from comedy superstar (in a double-act with Elaine May) to stage director, winning Tony awards for “Barefoot In The Park” and “The Odd Couple.” He hadn’t directed ‘Virginia Woolf,’ also a Tony winner, but took over for the movie version, which saw tumultuous real-life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor aging up to play George and Martha, a college professor and his wife, who have a drunken, provocative evening with a younger couple. Nichols’ film doesn’t expand the scope, as such, but Ernest Lehmann’s screenplay cunningly keeps it mostly in one house and cuts the running time down while making it cinematic. What strikes you now is how confident and fully-formed a debut it is for Nichols himself, wrestling the movie-star titans and a well-established source material and yet still putting his stamp on it. Taboo-breaking for the time (it was one of a number of movies that helped put the final stake in the heart of the Production Code), it’s aged remarkably well, still as funny, scabrous as raw as it was half a century ago. It got a staggering 13 Oscar nominations, every one it was eligible for, and Nichols would win the Director Oscar the following year for his outstanding follow-up, “The Graduate.”
Warren Beatty & Buck Henry - “Heaven Can Wait” (1978)
Notable for being both somewhat ignored these days, and for marking not just one directorial debut but two, "Heaven Can Wait" is admittedly kind of a trifle, but it’s an incredibly delicious trifle at that. A remake not of the Ernst Lubitsch film of the same name but of 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (itself a version of Harry Segall’s play), it saw superstar Warren Beatty (who’d been a hands-on producer regularly, but hadn’t directed before), and “The Graduate” writer Buck Henry team up to direct, from a script by Beatty and his friend Elaine May. Beatty also stars as a star quarterback who dies in an accident, only to be reincarnated in the body of a scumbag millionaire who’s just been murdered by his wife, going on to fall in love with environmentalist, Julie Christie. It’s unashamedly commercial stuff, but works like gangbusters as a romantic comedy, with Beatty and Christie’s usual chemistry giving a real soul to their affair, and the May-isms of the script (“There is nothing to be frightened of. There’s plenty to be worried about, but nothing to be frightened of.”) providing more laughs than the average. The debut helmers swiftly prove their chops too, with a Powell & Pressburger-ish magic realism that can feel regularly swoonsome. Beatty would go on to better with his next movie, “Reds” (Henry would only direct one further feature, underwhelming satire “First Family”), but this still marked a pretty good start.