Top 5 Oscar-Nominated Performances by Previously Unknown Actors

Oscar nominations

Remembering 5 scene stealers who earned Oscar nominations and rose from anonymity to stardom.

Founded in 1929 to recognize the crowning achievements of US cinema, the Academy Awards have celebrated exceptional filmmaking for nearly a century. Films have come a long way in that time, from manually rotated motion-picture slides to sophisticated visual effects and computerized images. The history of the Academy Awards has been marked by unforgettable vignettes and even occasional upsets, but no Oscar moment is more unprecedented or impactful than a newcomer triumphing over a veteran performer.

Here are five ambitious, fresh-faced prodigies who earned Oscar nominations. They challenged expectations, obstacles and pipe-dream stakes to become dark horses of Hollywood.

Rinko Kikuchi

Oscar nominationsRinko Kikuchi as Chieko Wataya in Babel (2006) / Paramount

Nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her 2006 performance in Babel — a nonlinear drama intersecting diverse characters, narratives and cultural nuances — Rinko Kikuchi has subsequently become the first Japanese actress to receive Oscar attention in over 50 years. Kikuchi’s interpretation of a deaf-mute teenager rebelling against a heteronormative status quo in the aftershock of her mother’s suicide is both emphatically impassioned and hauntingly anguished — an emotional range she communicates without voicing a word.

Christoph Waltz

Oscar nominationsChristoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds / The Weinstein Company

Recipient of the Best Supporting Actor distinction for his 2009 performance in Inglourious Basterds — a metacinematic farce which depicts the Nazi regime through a fictitious and often satirical perspective — Christoph Waltz gained Oscar prestige with the first mainstream English-speaking role of his career. Waltz’s portrayal of a sadistic, however charismatic, German officer is an ominous counterpoint to the film’s irreverent and facetious humor — a cunningly executed juxtaposition which catapulted this European actor into American stardom.

Jennifer Lawrence

Oscar nominationsJennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone / Lionsgate

Nominated in the Best Actress category for her 2010 performance in Winter’s Bone — an independent drama underscoring the relational and socioeconomic effects of methamphetamine abuse in the rural United States — Jennifer Lawrence is the youngest entertainer to amass four Oscar nominations, including one for this breakthrough role. Lawrence’s depiction of a 17-year-old withstanding financial destitution and familial dysfunction personifies the human will to survive — a motif Lawrence unravels with heartrending honesty and authenticity.

Lupita Nyong’o

Oscar nominationsLupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave / Fox Searchlight Pictures

Recipient of the Best Supporting Actress distinction for her 2013 performance in 12 Years a Slave — an antebellum period memoir which recounts the captivity of a freeborn African-American abducted into the 1840s slave trade — Lupita Nyong’o made cinematic history as the first Kenyan to claim an Oscar. Nyong’o was cast in this film immediately upon graduating from the Yale School of Drama, and her embodiment of a debased, brutalized young woman is excruciating to witness — imbued with “grit and grace” as described by critic Peter Travers.

Barkhad Abdi

Oscar nominationsBarkhad Abdi as Bilal in Captain Phillips / Photo by Jason Boland / Columbia Pictures

Nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for his 2013 performance in Captain Phillips — a biographical thriller based on the maritime hijacking of an American cargo-steamer —Barkhad Abdi’s on-screen debut propelled him from an unassuming existence in Minneapolis into the ranks of A-list Academy Award nominees. Proving that inherent genius can trump formal experience, Abdi’s representation of a Somali pirate, single-minded in his objective and fanatical to his cause, is both inhuman and emotive — a brash paradox indicative of this actor’s raw talent. end

What was your favorite performance this year?



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