Some filmmakers spend their whole careers trying to nab one of the Academy's five annual "Best Director" nomination slots. But in some rare cases, a director's debut film will make such a lasting and deep impression that the Academy of Arts and Sciences takes notice. Here are 21 directors who were nominated for an Oscar for their first efforts.
1. ORSON WELLES // CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Often considered the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1942—including 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 filmmakers 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. DELBERT MANN // MARTY (1955)
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 collaborated on 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.
3. SIDNEY LUMET // 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)
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's The Bridge on the River Kwai.
4. JACK CLAYTON // ROOM AT THE TOP (1959)
In 1959, British director Jack Clayton received international critical acclaim for the harsh indictment of the British class system he depicted in 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.
5. MIKE NICHOLS // WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
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.
6. AND 7. WARREN BEATTY AND BUCK HENRY // HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)
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.
8. ROBERT REDFORD // ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
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 iconic films his CV, including All the President’s Men, The Sting, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ordinary People ended up winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
9. HUGH HUDSON // CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)
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 took the trophy home for for Reds, Hudson’s film won the Best Picture prize.
10. JAMES L. BROOKS // TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
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 him three Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director.
11. ROLAND JOFFÉ // THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)
Director Roland Joffé made the transition from television to the big screen with The Killing Fields. He earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director; the film earned six additional nominations and won three of them, including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Haing S. Ngor—a non-actor who was also making his film debut.
12. KENNETH BRANAGH // HENRY V (1989)
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 Shakespeare play.
13. JIM SHERIDAN // MY LEFT FOOT (1989)
Dublin-born director Jim Sheridan is a six-time Academy Award nominated filmmaker. His first nomination came from My Left Foot 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.
14. KEVIN COSTNER // DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
In 1990, Dances with Wolves became a pop culture phenomenon, grossing $424.2 million worldwide and garnering 12 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 Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Frears, and Barbet Schroeder for the prestigious and notable award.
15. JOHN SINGLETON // BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
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, one for Best Original Screenplay and the other for Best Director. Singleton was the first African-American nominated for Best Director, and, at 24, also the youngest director to be nominated.
16. SPIKE JONZE // BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)
Before he started making feature films, Spike Jonze was mostly known for his strange and quirky commercial work and music videos. In 1999, Jonze earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for 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.
17. SAM MENDES // AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Speaking of Sam Mendes: In 1999, the British director 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 fo Mendes in his film directorial debut.
18. ROB MARSHALL // CHICAGO (2002)
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.
19. BENNETT MILLER // CAPOTE (2005)
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 nonfiction 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.
20. TONY GILROY // MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)
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 filmmaker decided to take 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.
21. BENH ZEITLIN // BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)
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.