Top 10: Breakthrough Performances Directed by Women

It’s evident that women directors have difficulty getting recognition for their work. Particularly, recognition from awards bodies. However, they also never receive credit for some of the acting careers they’ve launched. Whether they’ve plucked actors from obscurity or jump-started their careers, they single-handedly helped them become in-demand talents.

Here is a list of ten of the best breakthrough performances directed by women:

10Michelle Rodriguez in “Girlfight” (2000)
dir. Karyn Kusama

Michelle Rodriguez is one of the silver screen’s most prolific action heroines. Thanks to successful films like “Avatar” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise, she’s carved out an impressive name for herself. However, her road to action stardom began when director Karyn Kusama cast her in “Girlfight” which was her first film. In “Girlfight,” Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a teenager looking to channel her aggression into boxing. Her brilliant performance captures the star persona that she would demonstrate in her subsequent work. Also, her recent performance in “Widows” proved that “Girlfight” wasn’t just lightning in a bottle.

9Harris Dickinson in “Beach Rats” (2017)
dir. Eliza Hittman

As it turns out, it’s not just women whose careers have been launched by female directors. Since Harris Dickinson was cast in “Beach Rats,” he’s become a more in-demand talent. When you see his performance, it’s definitely not hard to see why. As Frankie, a Brooklynite struggling with his sexuality, Dickinson showcases a Brando-esque mix of charisma and depth. Also, he plays a Brooklyn dudebro so well that it’s surprising to realize he’s British. Right off the bat, he’s proven he can be either a charismatic star or a chameleonic character actor. Either way, he’s a special brand of acting talent.

8Sasha Lane in “American Honey” (2016)
dir. Andrea Arnold

While Andrea Arnold was in the casting phase with “American Honey,” she discovered Sasha Lane who was on spring break with friends. Arnold then had her audition for the role of Star, the main protagonist. Since then, Lane has slowly lived up to the name of her character. She won rave reviews for her naturalistic debut performance as the runaway teenager. After that came “Hearts Beat Loud” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” where she had supporting roles. Plus, she has the “Hellboy” reboot on the horizon. Her “American Honey” performance was no fluke and directors evidently being quite eager to work with her is definitive proof of that. All because Andrea Arnold was the one that discovered her and directed her breakthrough performance.

7Adepero Oduye in “Pariah” (2011)
dir. Dee Rees

Adepero Oduye is a name that should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. However, in the recent films she’s been in, her roles have been quite small. Anyone who’s seen her breakthrough work in “Pariah” knows that she should be higher on people’s casting lists. As Alike, a teenager discovering her sexuality, Oduye is a quiet force of nature. Throughout the film, Alike struggles to come out to her parents. But even in her silence, Adepero Oduye gives us a glimpse at Alike’s vulnerable struggle. Although the film didn’t reach a wide enough audience, it’s still a strong reminder of Adepero’s screen presence.

6Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone” (2004)
dir. Debra Granik

Starting in the early 00’s, Vera Farmiga had been steadily working with films like “15 Minutes” and “Dummy” rounding out her resume. However, her unsung performance in “Down to the Bone” managed to kick start her career. As Irene Morrison, an addict mother, Farmiga gives a refined performance that is brilliantly textured. Roles in films like “The Departed” and “Up In The Air,” for which she received an Oscar nomination, would follow. Not to mention, this isn’t the only time Debra Granik launched a career breakthrough. We’ll get to that momentarily.

5David Oyelowo in “Selma” (2014)
dir. Ava DuVernay

Technically, both “The Butler” and “Middle of Nowhere” might have been David Oyelowo’s real breakthrough. However, “Selma” is what gave his career the kickstart it needed. His performance as Martin Luther King is what really demanded people’s attention. Sadly, it didn’t demand Oscar’s attention since he was badly snubbed for Best Actor. But his work is still a multi-faceted portrait of the civil right activist that transcends mere biopic mimicry. Truthfully, as time goes on, it might join the same ranks as the greatest biopic performances in film history.

4Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Beyond the Lights” (2014)
dir. Gina Prince-Blythewood

Back in 2014, Gugu Mbatha-Raw had two brilliant yet vastly different leading performances. One was “Belle” where she plays a biracial aristocrat caught between two worlds. The other was her career-best turn in “Beyond the Lights” as Noni, a pop star struggling with fame. Gugu is incredibly three-dimensional as a singer who uses her sunny celebrity persona as a mask for her inner turmoil. Admittedly, the film nearly falls into melodramatic trappings. But Gugu Mbatha-Raw still holds it together with the use of her innate charisma. Thankfully, Hollywood has taken slight note of her star potential since the film’s release.

3Evan Rachel Wood in “Thirteen” (2003)
dir. Catherine Hardwicke

The best way to describe “Thirteen” is that it’s a lot. There’s all kinds of issues adolescents face that the film tries to pack in. As a result, it becomes quite a difficult watch. Yet, it’s still successfully guided by Evan Rachel Wood whose performance possesses unhinged realism. Wood plays Tracy, an innocent teenager who tries fitting with the most popular girl in school. However, she eventually goes down a self-destructive path of sex, drugs, and crime. Wood’s portrayal of rage-fueled melancholia is quite in sync with the camera’s color scheme that gets bluer as Tracy’s conflict deepens. An Oscar nomination didn’t happen despite her earning nominations from the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. But despite that, “Thirteen” was still a strong indication that she was a talent to watch.

2Carey Mulligan in “An Education” (2009)
dir. Lone Scherfig

Ten years ago, Carey Mulligan came out of nowhere with “An Education” and wowed critics and audiences with her spellbinding performance. Mulligan effortlessly carries the picture as Jenny, a high school student who’s wise beyond her years yet oblivious to the harshness of the real world. Yet despite slowly being hit with reality, we’re still with Jenny throughout her journey. It’s a true blue, “star is born” performance that rightfully earned Mulligan her first Oscar nomination. In addition, her star turn earned comparisons to Audrey Hepburn upon the film’s release. Definitely not the worst comparison.

1Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” (2010)
dir. Debra Granik

As previously mentioned, Debra Granik has a habit of turning her leading ladies into household names. After Vera Farmiga, Jennifer Lawrence then made her mark in Hollywood. She’s someone who has achieved the best of both worlds: Becoming a box office draw and an awards commodity. However, the Sundance wonder “Winter’s Bone” is where her road to stardom first began. Lawrence is quietly arresting as Ree Dolly, an impoverished teenager who acts as both a mother and sister to her siblings. Ree is someone who clearly feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. But the weight she carries lives entirely in Lawrence’s expressive face. Because Lawrence proved her ability to carry a film effortlessly, it’s no wonder she earned her first Best Actress nomination. The rest after that is pretty much history.

What do you think are the best breakthrough performances directed by women? Please share your thoughts!

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