With “The Tree of Life” on DVD and Blu-ray and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” opening in limited release on Friday, it seemed a good time to take stock of the best debut performances the cinema has to offer. Hunter McCracken in the former and Elizabeth Olsen in the latter offer up award-worthy work, stunning in their capacity to inhabit their characters and seek out the truth therein.
The research on this one was taxing, and I don’t mind telling you, this list might be different on another day. It’s tough to settle on 10 when there are so many sterling debuts to choose from. And believe me, if your favorite isn’t on here, I’m sure I considered him or her.
It was heartbreaking to leave off the likes of Eva Marie Saint, Kate Winslet, William Hurt and Melanie Lynskey, as it was to ultimately eschew more recent stunners like Keisha Castle-Hughes, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Anna Paquin and the duo who sparked the idea to assemble the list.
Alas, tough choices have to be made when you do something like this. I wanted a good balance of eras as well, as I quickly discovered a great many outstanding debut performances came within the last two decades.
I tried to be strict here, too. If, say, James Dean showed up as a kid drinking from a water fountain in a film prior to “East of Eden,” no can do. If Q’orianka Kilcher had a quick part as a choir member in Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” before Terrence Malick truly discovered her for “The New World,” I couldn’t go there. This space I tried to reserve for that first moment we saw a talented actor on the big screen and the excitement such a thing brings.
So there we have it. Take a look at my list in our new gallery, and feel free to offer up your choices in the comments section below. (And, it goes without saying, don’t take it so personal if these don’t line up with your preferences. There’s a little thing called subjectivity.)