20 First-Time Directors Nominated For An Academy Award

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Only five filmmakers can be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in any given year. Some auteurs spend their whole careers trying to nab one of those slots, but in some rare cases, a first-time director's debut will make such a lasting and deep impression that the Academy of Arts and Sciences takes notice. Here are 20 directors who were nominated for an Oscar for their first efforts.

1.Orson Welles // Citizen Kane

Often considered the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941including one for Best Director for its director (and star and writer) Orson Welles—but only won a single award for its original screenplay. While Welles was one of the youngest to receive a directing nomination at the age of 26, the prestigious award went to John Ford for the film How Green Was My Valley.

2. Sidney Lumet // 12 Angry Men

At 33, Sidney Lumet was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for his debut feature film, 12 Angry Men. The tension-filled courtroom drama was nominated for two additional Academy Awards, including Best Writing of Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Lumet lost; the Oscar instead went to David Lean for the film Bridge on the River Kwai.

3. Benh Zeitlin // Beasts of the Southern Wild

At the beginning of 2013, 30-year-old Benh Zeitlin was honored with an Academy Award nomination for his directorial debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but the award went to Ang Lee for his skillful direction of Life of Pi.

4. Delbert Mann // Marty

In 1955, first-time feature film director Delbert Mann and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky made the film adaptation of the teleplay Marty (which the pair had also made two years earlier). The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine, and earned a win for Chayefsky’s screenplay and Mann’s direction. Marty is currently one of two films to win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm Award) at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The other film is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend.

5. Tony Gilroy // Michael Clayton

While Tony Gilroy has a long career as a screenwriter penning such movies as The Cutting Edge, Armageddon, and the first three movies in the Jason Bourne film series, the 57-year-old filmmaker took a stab at directing with the film Michael Clayton in 2007. The movie earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for George Clooney, while Tilda Swinton earned a win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Tony Gilroy was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for his debut feature film.

6. Spike Jonze // Being John Malkovich

Before he started making feature films, Spike Jonze was mostly known for his strange and quirky commercial work and music videos. In 1999, Jonze (whose real name is Adam Spiegel) earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for the unusual film Being John Malkovich. Although Jonze is one of the youngest directors to be nominated for an Oscar, the then-30-year-old filmmaker lost the award to Sam Mendes for American Beauty, which also won Best Picture.

7. Kevin Costner // Dances with Wolves

In 1990, Dances with Wolves became a pop culture phenomenon, grossing $424.2 million worldwide and garnering 11 Academy Award nominations. Although it was Kevin Costner’s first time behind the camera, the actor-turned-director was honored with the Best Director Academy Award, and he beat out top-tier directors Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Frears, Barbet Schroeder, and Martin Scorsese for the prestigious and notable award.

8. James L. Brooks // Terms of Endearment

Before Terms of Endearment was released in 1983, James L. Brooks was mostly known as a television producer with big hits like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Taxi under his belt. However, Brooks’ first attempt at film directing earned the Brooklyn, New York native three Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director.

9. Warren Beatty and Buck Henry // Heaven Can Wait

During the 51st Academy Awards in 1979, first-time directors Warren Beatty and Buck Henry were nominated for the film adaptation of Harry Segall’s stage play Heaven Can Wait. Beatty was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Adapted Screenplay, which he also shared with screenwriter and director Elaine May. While Beatty and Henry lost the Oscar for directing to Michael Camino for The Deer Hunter, Beatty would win the Best Director Academy Award for the film Reds a few years later.

10. Mike Nichols // Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated for every eligible category during the 39th Academy Awards in 1967. To date, it's one of only two films that have achieved this record (the other is the 1931 film Cimarron). Mike Nichols was nominated for Best Director, but lost the Oscar to director Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons. Nichols would go on to direct significant films, including The Graduate, Working Girl, and Charlie Wilson's War.

11. Robert Redford // Ordinary People

Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People, was nominated for six Oscars during the 53rd Academy Awards in 1981. Before the film’s release, Redford was mostly known as an actor with impressive and iconic roles on his CV, including Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, Johnny Hooker in The Sting and, of course, the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ordinary People ended up winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

12. Kenneth Branagh // Henry V

In 1989, the British film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V earned rookie director (and the film’s star) Kenneth Branagh an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. While the film only won one Oscar—Phyllis Dalton took home the statue for Best Costume Design—Branagh’s Henry V is considered one of the best film adaptations of a William Shakespeare play.

13. Jack Clayton // Room at the Top

In 1959, British director Jack Clayton received international critical acclaim for the harsh indictment of the British class system depicted in the film Room at the Top. Based on author John Braine’s novel of the same name, the black-and-white film earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director. Interestingly, Hermione Baddeley’s supporting performance as Elspeth in Room at the Top holds the record for shortest performance to be nominated for an Academy Award, clocking in at only 2 minutes and 20 seconds of screen time. Clayton didn't take home the best directing trophy; it went to William Wyler for Ben-Hur.

14. Bennett Miller // Capote

Though Bennett Miller had directed a theatrically released documentary in 1998 called The Cruise, his feature film debut was a biopic about author Truman Capote writing the non-fiction book In Cold Blood. While the film only won one Academy Award—Best Actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman—Capote was nominated in four other categories including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Catherine Keener, Best Picture, and Best Director for Miller, who lost the award to director Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain.

15. Roland Joffé // The Killing Fields

Director Roland Joffé made the transition from the small screen to the big screen with the 1984 film The Killing Fields. He earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director; the film earned five additional nominations and a win for Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor—a non-actor who was also making his film debut.

16. John Singleton // Boyz N the Hood

In 1991, John Singleton made his directorial debut with Boyz N the Hood, which explored gang violence in South Central Los Angeles during the early '90s. The film earned Singleton two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Singleton was the first African-American nominated for Best Director, and, at 24, also the youngest director to be nominated.

17. Rob Marshall // Chicago

The film Chicago was the ninth movie musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was nominated for 13 Oscars for the 75th Academy Awards, including Best Director for Rob Marshall, who was making his feature debut. (He had previously directed a TV movie version of Annie.) Marshall ultimately lost the award to director Roman Polanski for The Pianist.

18. Jim Sheridan // My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown

Irish director Jim Sheridan is a six-time Academy Award nominated filmmaker. His first nomination came from My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown in 1989. Sheridan didn’t win the trophy, but actor Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Irish artist Christy Brown.

19. Hugh Hudson // Chariots of Fire

The British film Chariots of Fire earned seven Academy Award nominations and four wins, including Best Original Screenplay. The film’s director, Hugh Hudson, was nominated for Best Director with his feature film debut. Although Warren Beatty ultimately won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, Hudson’s film won the Best Picture prize.

20. Sam Mendes // American Beauty

In 1999, British director Sam Mendes made the transition from stage plays to major motion pictures with American Beauty. The film—about the emotional and psychological dangers of living in the American suburbs—was a box office hit and a cultural touchstone for many moviegoers in the late '90s. American Beauty won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Kevin Spacey, and Best Director for Sam Mendes in his film directorial debut.

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February 4, 2014 - 2:00pm
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