For any aspiring filmmaker—be it an actor, writer, director, or beyond—getting one's first big break is the key to finding success in Hollywood. For a very select few, that first gig has led to critical acclaim, and an Oscar. Here are 19 of the lucky ones.
1. Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong'o wasn't a total film novice when she landed the role of Patsey in Steve McQueen's Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave (2013). In 2009, she produced, directed, edited, and handled all the publicity for the documentary In My Genes. But 12 Years a Slave marked her debut in front of the camera, and what a debut it was. In addition to the Academy Award, Nyong'o won more than 50 awards for the role from critics and film festivals around the world. Unlike other actors who've fallen victim to the "Oscar Curse," Nyong'o has chosen her follow-up roles carefully, with key roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mira Nair's upcoming The Queen of Katwe, and Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book.
2. Anna Paquin
Long before True Blood, nine-year-old Anna Paquin got her first big break in The Piano. She beat 5000 other girls, including her sister, for the role. Her only acting experience: a small role as a skunk in the school play. Paquin was 11 when she won Best Supporting Actress in 1994. Holly Hunter won Best Actress for playing her character's mother.
3. Gale Sondergaard
Gale Sondergaard won Best Supporting Actress in 1937 for the costume drama Anthony Adverse. It was the only Academy Award of her career. Years later, she dropped out of playing the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, reportedly because she didn't want to wear disfiguring makeup. That's how people win Oscars nowadays!
4. Katina Paxinou
Greek actress Katina Paxinou also peaked early. She honed her acting skills on stage, even when her parents disowned her. When Paxinou finally got in front of a movie camera in the 1943 film For Whom the Bell Tolls, she won Best Supporting Actress.
5. Harold Russell
In 2014, Barkhad Abdi was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his first film role. Before playing a Somali pirate leader in Captain Phillips, he worked as a chauffeur. Almost all first-role Oscar winners are women; only two men have accomplished the same feat. The first was Harold Russell, a World War II veteran who lost both hands in the war. He's the only person to win two Academy Awards for the same performance, the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. The first was Best Supporting Actor; the second was an honorary Oscar for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans. In 1992, he controversially sold his Best Supporting Actor statuette to pay for his wife's medical expenses. Since 1950, Oscar winners have had to sign an agreement that prohibits selling their awards without first offering to sell it back to the Academy for $1.
6. Mercedes McCambridge
Orson Welles called her "the world's greatest living radio actress," but Mercedes McCambridge was also impressive enough on camera to win Best Supporting Actress for All the King's Men in 1950. She was nominated for the same award again for Giant in 1957, but didn't take home the golden statuette. One of her strangest later roles: The voice of Pazuzu the demon in The Exorcist.
7. Shirley Booth
Sometimes a rookie carries an entire film. Shirley Booth's first role in 1952's Come Back, Little Sheba won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. There was a reason Booth was trusted with a big part: She won her second Tony two years earlier playing the same role.
8. Barbra Streisand
It's hard enough to win an Oscar. But Barbra Streisand is among the few performers to have won at least one Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award. Just four years after being nominated for a Tony for Funny Girl and losing, Streisand won Best Actress for the same role in the 1968 film. Then she was honored with a Special Tony for career achievement in 1970. It was non-competitive, but we're still impressed.
9. Eva Marie Saint
Before she played the femme fatale in the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, Eva Marie Saint's breakout role was in 1954's On the Waterfront. She won Best Supporting Actress. She had some prior TV and stage experience, but it was still her film debut.
10. Jo Van Fleet
A year after Saint's win, another upstart—stage actress Jo Van Fleet—took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Both actresses won Oscars under the direction of Elia Kazan, but their careers took very different turns: After playing Kate in East of Eden, Fleet was typecast as an old woman, often much older than she actually was. Ouch.
11. Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews initially turned down the title role in Mary Poppins, because she didn't want to film her first movie while pregnant. So Disney decided to wait until Andrews had the baby—they thought she was that perfect for the role. So did the Academy: Andrews won the Best Actress Oscar in 1965. One year later, she was nominated for The Sound of Music, but didn't win.
12. Tatum O'Neal
Best Supporting Actress tends to be awarded to up-and-coming stars. At 10 years old, Tatum O'Neal was the youngest winner in history, beating out her 31-year-old co-star Madeline Kahn. She was nine when she starred alongside her father Ryan O'Neal in 1973's Paper Moon.
13. Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin's Best Actress Award for the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God broke even more records. At 21, Matlin is the youngest performer to win Best Actress and still the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award.
14. Haing S. Ngor
The only other actor to win an Oscar for his first role was Haing S. Ngor for the 1984 film The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. The Cambodian-American physician-turned-actor is still the only Asian actor to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Eleven years after his Oscar win, Ngor was tragically murdered during a robbery outside his home in Los Angeles.
15. Michael Arndt
Winning debuts aren't limited to actors. It only took three days for Michael Arndt to write Little Miss Sunshine. (Well, three days and then a year of revisions.) The screenplay sold in 2001 and then spent a few more years in pre-production. The completed film was a surprise hit, winning Best Original Screenplay in 2007 (it also won a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Alan Arkin, and nods for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Abigail Breslin). Arndt's second script, for Toy Story 3, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2011. Most recently, he co-wrote the script for Star Wars: The Force Awakens with J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan.
16. Diablo Cody
Screenwriter Diablo Cody wrote her first film in just a few months at a Minnesota Starbucks. (And not just any Starbucks—a Starbucks inside a Target.) Juno won Best Original Screenplay in 2008.
17. Jennifer Hudson
When singers get voted off American Idol, we don't usually hear much from them again. But when Hudson got the boot in 2004, she was just getting started. She was cast as Effie White in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls even before she had a record deal. Hudson had big shoes to fill—Jennifer Holliday won a Tony and Grammy for the role in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Hudson stole the show from Beyoncé and sent a message to everyone when she sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." The singer won Best Supporting Actress in 2007, the third African American woman to ever do so. A year later, she took home her first Grammy.
18. Geoffrey Fletcher
Most screenwriters start their careers with an original screenplay. Geoffrey Fletcher made his name with a heart-wrenching adaptation of the Sapphire novel Push. Precious won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2010, making Fletcher the first African American to win an Academy Award for writing. In 2014, John Ridley won the same award for 12 Years a Slave.
19. Mark Boal
Before turning to film, Mark Boal honed his writing and research skills as a journalist. That came in handy as he wrote and produced The Hurt Locker, which won both Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture in 2010. That year, the film's director Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win Best Director. They teamed up again for Boal's second film, Zero Dark Thirty, in 2012. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture again, but didn't win either award.
An earlier version of this post appeared in 2014.