Famous Firsts

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

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By Roderick Heath

I’ve always enjoyed tracking down embryonic work by future notables. Even more, I like seeing a work that suggests a future great, and watching their growth – the electric sensation of history being made that came when watching, say, Reservoir Dogs or Hard Eight, or even seeing the birth of greatness from a far earlier era.

So I’m going to make as broad a survey as I can of the unofficial genre known as the debut film. I’m not talking here about those stupid clip shows where they dig up footage of a now-famous actor when they were a teenager with a bad hairdo getting being iced by a serial killer in an obscure slasher film. I’ve employed a highly scientific method that involves DVDs, coffee, and a bagful of mixed nuts.

There’s a cliché constantly employed when describing the debut of note, whether it’s of the future great director, star actor, or accomplished writer. It’s the word “promising,” indicating that, amongst the dross of amateurism contained in a debut, there are flashes of real skill and art that might some day flourish into worthiness.

It’s not such a helpful phrase. Quite apart from the fact that it is as belittling as it is congratulatory, it can be misleading. Often, especially in the perverse geometry of modern cinema, the promising debut is, in fact, the best work. How many times have you said to yourself or your friends something like, “I liked the early stuff, but since then he/she’s gone off the rails.” All sorts of reasons for that. Have too much money thrown at you, too much adulation, and that energy, discipline, and circumstance-enforced invention all go out the window. Then there’s another endemic problem, which is the overrated debut for which some tyro wins Oscars and legions of fans with a promising film that just isn’t that great.

Most typically, the eye-catching debut is uneven, perhaps even generally lousy, but contains flashes of imagination, invention, vividness. Key themes and stylistic tendencies are present, but in embryonic, naïf form, that will develop in the more considered later work.

Then there’s the highly unpromising debut, the piece of crap that teaches you more by how you screw up than by what you get right, that lousy slasher film that taught the future star never to take a part that means dying from a power tool to the head in the third reel. Sometimes an ill-fated debut creates survivors. Witness Jessica Lange’s recovery from her worldwide humiliation in King Kong (1976), or good directors recover from work like Piranha 2: The Spawning (James Cameron, 1981).

Then there’s the exact opposite—the earth-shaking arrival, the awe-inspiring declaration of ability that seems to have nowhere to go but down. Welles with Citizen Kane. Huston with The Maltese Falcon. Brando in The Men. Godard with Breathless. Lynch’s Eraserhead. Reservoir Dogs. Nightmare on Mills Street (What, you’ve never seen that? The absolute greatest horror film ever made with a camcorder and featuring my mother as a homicidal maniac).

For these films, then, I’ll be applying a broad and not-at-all rigorously planned grading system:

Unpromising, Promising, and Tectonic.

*Lead image is Strongman Sandow, the first film ever made (1896).

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    19th/06/2008 to 2:42 pm

    I’m still waiting for the director’s cut of Nightmare on Mills St. Will there be making of docs on the DVD as well?

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/06/2008 to 9:11 pm

    I would like to fast track the DVD, but my Dad is dicking me about on the royalties.

  • Daniel spoke:
    20th/06/2008 to 11:02 am

    I love this new feature. Looking forward…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/06/2008 to 11:39 am

    Rod and I would welcome suggestions from the peanut gallery, particularly of on-screen talent. Remember, access to the first films is important, and Rod’s resources in Lithgow are a bit more limited than most people.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    20th/06/2008 to 12:12 pm

    Fantastic idea for a new feature, I look forward to reading lots more. It’s always interesting to see where a director started in relation to where he or she went later.
    But Godard as an example of starting strong with nowhere to go but down? Huh? Almost 50 years of films and videos under his belt and there are still people who think of Breathless as the pinnacle of his career? Breathless certainly may have seemed earth-shaking at the time. Today, seen in the context of both the Nouvelle Vague in general and Godard’s oeuvre especially, it seems more like a collection of ideas, techniques, approaches to narrative, and stylistic flourishes that would be developed much more fully, by Godard and others, in the years to come. It’s practically the definition of the “promising” debut. I’ll be interested in reading your more in-depth thoughts on Breathless when (surely not “if,” right?) that film is featured here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/06/2008 to 1:19 pm

    I think Rod was referring to the fact that when you start at the top, how do you go higher. The operative word in that sentence is “seems”. But Rod can expand on it more when he wakes up (it’s nighttime in Oz right now).

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/06/2008 to 9:14 pm

    No, you pretty well said it.

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