First Time Out: Academy Awards for Directorial Debuts


With 2017’s Get Out earning four Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay) and winning the Best Original Screenplay award for first-time writer-director Jordan Peele, the Academy is showing a resolute appreciation for original storytelling and biting cinematic satire.

Jordan Peele is best known for his work on the Comedy Central sketch comedy show Key and Peele, where the duo’s passion for cinema is apparent as they frequently reference and parody a slew of classic films in the show. Peele has even curated a collection of films that inspired Get Out for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

While Peele did not take home the Best Director award for his feature film debut, he did make Academy Award history as the first African-American screenwriter to win the award for Best Original Screenplay.

Since the Academy Awards began in 1929, there have only been six directors to win Best Director for their debut films:


1. Delbert Mann — Marty (1955)



This film stars Ernest Borgnine as the title character. Unmarried at 34, Marty is socially awkward and resigned to a life of bachelorhood. A chance encounter forces him to abandon the advice of his family and friends to discover what will make him truly happy.





2. Jerome Robbins — West Side Story (1961)



This 1961 film adaptation of a 1957 Broadway musical (inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)  was an instant hit with critics and audiences alike. The music, set design, costumes and memorable performances made this film sweep the Academy Awards, garnering 10 wins.





3. Robert Redford — Ordinary People (1980)



This suburban drama is the first film Robert Redford directed, though he had spent 20 years acting in such films as The Great Gatsby, The Sting, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid prior to this film’s 1980 release. With stellar performances from Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton — who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film (and he’s still the youngest person to ever win this award) — this film is as melancholy as it is grounded, heartfelt and undeniably human.




4. James L. Brooks — Terms of Endearment (1983)


This classic tearjerker features incredible performances from  Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson. The blend of laughter and sorrow played flawlessly by this cast gives the film an air of tragic authenticity. This film earned five Academy Awards, including three for first-time director James L. Brooks. Apart from being an Oscar-winning film director, Brooks is also a legendary television writer and producer. He has worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, and is one of the brilliant minds to co-create The Simpsons.



5. Kevin Costner — Dances With Wolves (1990)


When Kevin Costner took on the role of director, he wanted to make something epic. And he did. This film adaptation of a 1988 novel features huge sprawling landscapes, intense performances, and a three-hour runtime. Costner plays a US Cavalry lieutenant who finds common bond with the Lakota people in the wilds of the American frontier. It is said that this film is responsible in part for the resurgence of Western films in the US, with several memorable additions to the genre produced after Dances With Wolves won seven Academy Awards.     




6. Sam Mendes — American Beauty (1999)


The most recent first-time director and winner of the Best Director award, Sam Mendes was already an accomplished stage director before screenwriter Alan Ball gave him a script for a smart, irreverent and socially disruptive film. Using his many years of experience with actors in the theatre, Mendes spent ample time rehearsing the script with the cast — fine-tuning each performance and maintaining the proper tone for each scene. The result is a masterfully assembled story of a dysfunctional American family that struggles to manage when the veil of their affected suburban bliss begins to lift.



-Blog post by Josh Harris, Media Services Supervisor, Smith Library.