Back in the golden age of cinema, it wasn’t uncommon for beautiful young women to be plucked off the depression era streets, “discovered” by some hot-shot movie producer, and thrust onto the big screen, becoming an overnight sensation in the process. It may have seemed like a glamorous life, but the reality was that most of the women ended up trapped in the studio system, unable to work once it was deemed that their looks had run their course.
Many would argue that very little has changed. There may not be as many overnight success stories nowadays, but the ending is very similar as there seems to be a dearth of quality roles for females once they reach a certain age, replaced by a newer, younger version with half the talent, but twice the looks. A quick look back at some of the great screen debuts by these ladies, may just lend us some perspective.
The Academy Awards have, throughout their history, been quick to reward the debut performances of many a talented actress. It’s interesting to note that the majority of these women fail to go on to have established, successful careers. Four perfect examples would be, Tatum O’Neal who starred beside her father, Ryan, in “Paper Moon,” as a precocious kid who hits the road with a con man who is charged with taking her to her aunt’s place. Another one in the kid category is “Anna Paquin,” who became the second youngest actress to win an Oscar, behind O’Neal, for her role in, “The Piano.” She quickly disappeared from the Hollywood scene, by choice it should be noted, but has made something of a triumphant return in the X-Men series of films. Although a good deal older than Paquin and O’Neal, Marlee Matlin became the youngest actress to win a Best Actress Academy Award for her incredible performance in, “Children of a Lesser God.” She has continued to work steadily on the big screen and on TV, all the more impressive given that she is deaf and the number of roles afforded her are slim at best. The final actress that falls into this category and, for me at least, the one who turned in the most memorable performance, is, Louise Fletcher, for her role as the uber stern, Nurse Ratched in, “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest.” The fact that she was able to hold her own next to powerhouse, Jack Nicholson, is a testament to her incredible talent.
Not everyone can make a big splash with the academy their first time out, but there are still many memorable debuts, way too many to mention here. More often than not, actresses have to work their way through a number of bit parts and crummy B-movies before landing the big picture that puts them on the front page. Julia Roberts did just that, playing a number of fairly successful movies, usually part of a large ensemble cast, and given very little screen time, before hitting it huge with, “Pretty Woman,” the movie that launched her career. The same can be said for Vivien Leigh, who plied her trade in the theater before landing the dream role of, Scarlet O’Hara in, “Gone with the Wind”, for which she won an Oscar.
The big screen moment that trumps all others, in my book, is that of Marilyn Monroe in, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Marilyn had appeared in a number of movies, mostly small, uncredited roles, but it was this movie, more than any other that turned her into an icon. She would go on to even greater success before her untimely death. We can only hope that there will be many more great performances, just like these, in the years ahead, and that the movie industry will do a better job of coming up with roles that are on a par with the talent.