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A History of (Firsts) for Women in Film

Today for the International Women's History Centennial, a few "firsts" in movies. Add some in the comments if you want!  I was 2/3rds done with this when I spotted Cinematical's "women in cinematic history but I wanted to make this a little more "first"y and loopier and obviously a bit more awardsy in nature since we play it like that.

A Mary Pickford biography | Florence Lawrence "The Biograph Girl"


First movie star: That's "The Biograph Girl" Florence Lawrence OR...
First "Oprah" i.e. first woman in entertainment to basic control the universe
: Mary Pickford was, like Florence Lawrence, famous by sight before actor names went in credits. Pickford was also known as "America's Sweetheart" a title that the media has virtually never tired of passing on down to newish popular actresses ever since. Mary was one of the founders of AMPAS and a studio founder too. She also commanded astronomical wealth. In a time when average US incomes were somewhere around $3,000ish, she was pulling in $10,000 a week plus a $300,000 annual bonus plushad her own production company plus co-founded movie studios and AMPAS. One can only imagine...

First woman to direct a full length feature: Lois Weber for The Merchant of Venice (1914)
First woman to go nude in a motion picture
: Audrey Munson in The Inspiration (1915) playing an artist's model. She did it for the art, you see!


First woman to win an Oscar: Janet Gaynor, Best Actress on May 16th, 1929. She was a new 22 year old sensation, beating out veteran movie queen Gloria Swanson establishing Hollywood's voting preferences for the Best Actress category for the next 82 years! Gloria declined her invitation to pick up "honorable mention." I'm not begrudging Gaynor her statue -- she's pretty terrific in her 1929 trio Seventh Heaven, Sunrise and Street Angel but I'm just saying... ;)

the die is forever cast: ingenue vs. seasoned pro.

Gaynor also held the status of "youngest best actress winner" for five decades until newbie Marlee Matlin won at 21 for Children of a Lesser God in early 1987 triumphing over seasoned movie queen Kathleen Turner.


First woman to receive a "special" Oscar: Shirley Temple, miniature superstar in 1934. It was a miniature Oscar. No child star has ever rivalled her popularity since. She was the #1 box office attraction for years.
First Oscar win for Katharine Hepburn: Morning Glory March 16th, 1934. She'd go on to 3 more wins making her the numero uno Oscar Actress
First woman to win Best Supporting Actress Oscar: Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse (1936)
First woman to win Back-to-Back Best Actress Oscars: Luise Rainer (The Good Earth and The Great Ziegfeld). Katharine Hepburn later repeated the trick in the 1960s. Luise is currently the oldest living Oscar winner.
First marriage for Zsa Zsa Gabor: 1937. She's still ahead of Liz Taylor by one (9:8) for the title of Most Married Hollywood Actress

Michele Morgan in La Symphonie Pastorale


First actress to become an elected US official: Helen Galaghan, the wife of Oscar winner Melyvn Douglas (and stepgrandmother to Ileanna Douglas) played the dangerous title character in scifi cult classic SHE (1935) see my review. In the 40s she served in the Congress for California and gave Richard Nixon that derogatory nickname that stuck "Tricky Dick" but her political career was destroyed during the McCarthy era witchhunts. A more recent example of an actress going into politics: two time Best Actress Oscar winner Glenda Jackson gave up the movies and became a Member of Parliament in Britain. 
First winner of Cannes Best Actress: Michèle Morgan for Jean Delannoy's La Symphonie Pastorale (1946). She played a blind girl whose sight is miraculously restored but which destroys her happiness.


First woman to receive an honorary regular-sized Oscar: Greta Garbo in 1954. Yep, after 20 or so men had been given one. After another 15 or so men were given non-competitive statues the next woman was Onna White for choreographing Oliver! (1968).

The ratio continues this way: 1970s men: 14; women: 3; 1980s men: 8; women: 1; 1990s men: 9;women: 3; 2000s men 12: women: 1; This year men: 3; women: 0; What the hell is AMPAS's problem with women, exactly?

First woman to win Best Actress for her debut performance: Shirley Booth for Come Back Little Sheba (1952). She only made 3 more features and was largely a stage and TV star. She remains the only woman in her fifties to ever win Best Actress. She's one of 12 women to have won Oscars for their debuts on the big screen. Only two men have ever managed that feat, Dr Haing S Ngor for The Killing Fields and Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives, both wins often associated with their non-acting backstories. (The reason men rarely win or even get nominated for their debuts -- the ratio is crazy to compare -- has to do, obviously, with Oscar's whole thing of valuing men for their experience and longevity and valuing women for... other reasons.)

First black woman nominated for best Actress: Dorothy Dandridge for the musical Carmen Jones (1954)
First savvy woman to popularize the dread "DeGlam" Oscar trick:
Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954) in which a lesser performance beats a miraculous one (Judy Garland, A Star is Born) because the lesser one features a great beauty pretending to be plain... ACTING!
First (and most) pregnant Oscar winner
: Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront in April 1955 who said

I may have the baby right here!

She gave birth two days later by some accounts. Other sources say two weeks.
First (and only) Asian woman to win an acting Oscar
: Miyoshi Umeki for Best Supporting Actress for Sayonara (1957)
First women on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Joanne Woodward (aka Mrs Paul Newman) in September 1958 is the most famous of the first batch of 8 recipients barring Burt Lancaster. Two other actresses represented that day were from silent films: Olive Borden and Louise Fazenda. The myth that Woodward received the first star ever, is according to Wikipedia, because she was the first celeb to have her photograph taken with her star. That's now the only way it ever happens, as a big photo op.


First woman to win the "Triple Crown" of acting, Emmy/Tony/Oscar: Ingrid Bergman completed the feat in 1960 with an Emmy but the Oscars were first (and last) in her career. She won three, second only to Katharine Hepburn.
First woman to be paid $1 million for a single film
: Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963). Despite the film being a huge flop on a cost-to-gross ratio, she actually earned $7 million all told due to various contractual bits and bobs.


First woman to win the EGOT: Barbra Streisand completed the quad by 1970... though some claim she's not a true EGOT'er since the Tony was a non-competitive prize. If you don't count Babs the first woman to achieve showbiz's Holy Quad is Helen Hayes who had all four by 1976. Rita Moreno was the first (and only) Hispanic woman to do it the following year.
First woman to win an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year
: Liza Minnelli for Cabaret (1972) and Liza with a Z (1972). For what it's worth LIZA WITH A Z is an absolute must-have on DVD. It is amazeballs.

First woman to win Best Picture at the Oscars
: Julia Phillips for The Sting (1973). She later wrote the very bitchy tell-all Hollywood bestseller "You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again"
First woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976). She was nominated against luminaries like Ingmar Bergman, Alan J Pakula and Sidney Lumet. Rocky's John G Avildsen won the Oscar.
First woman to say "no" to Warren Beatty: I'm joking. He can't have never been turned down given how often he made advances but the legend holds that he did ask Julie Christie to marry him and she refused.
First Meryl Streep Oscar Nomination: The Deer Hunter (1978). She'd go on to a total of 16 making her the most nominated actor, male or female, in Oscar history.


First actress on a US postage stamp: I believe it's Ethel Barrymore in 1982. Some sources online say Grace Kelly in 1993 but maybe they mean a solo stamp. Ethel shared hers with two other members of the Barrymore dynasty.
First actress to create a fitness empire: Jane Fonda. Workout Starring Jane Fonda is still the best selling fitness video of all time. She was 45 when she made it.
First (and only) back-to-back Best Actress Cannes winner
: Barbara Hershey for Shy People (1987) and A World Apart (1988), both of which are little seen now which is a real shame. At least she's back in the public eye a bit with Black Swan.
First woman to direct a blockbuster: Penny Marshall, former television star (Laverne & Shirley), directed Big (1988). It wasn't even her only blockbuster. A League of Their Own later crossed the $100 million mark in the 90s.


First African American woman to direct a movie that won general theatrical releaseJulie Dash had a success d'estime with Daughters of the Dust (1991)
First woman to get properly laid by Brad Pitt onscreen: Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise (1991)


First African American woman to win Best Actress: Halle Berry in Monster's Ball on March 24th, 2002.
First American woman nominated for Best Director: Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003)


First (and only) female winner of Oscar's Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker on March 7th, 2010.

Firsts we're still waiting for...

  • a woman to direct a Pixar movie
  • a woman to be nominated for Cinematography at the Oscars
  • an out gay woman being nominated for an acting Oscar. It's pretty empy on the male side as well though as least we've had Sir Ian McKellen.
  • an Asian woman to win Best Actress. Only one has even been nominated (Merle Oberon who hid her ancestry for years back when racism was a much bigger problem that it is now)

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Reader Comments (29)

Not to be "that guy," but Harold Russell also won an Oscar for his film debut.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Maybe clarify Miyoshi Umeki won Best Supporting. I thought she'd won best Actress.

And Hattie McDaniel should make the list too...

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Wickliffe

It's interesting about the lack of Asians to be nominated for acting oscars...and no one ever really talks about it.

I'm pretty young, so even the year Babel was up for awards happened before I started following the race. Did Rinko Kikuchi even have a chance?

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDylan

Ooh, and since this quite awards-centric, here's a couple more:

First female President of AMPAS: Bette Davis (1940)
First woman to host the Oscars: Agnes Moorehead (1948)
First female President of SAG: Kathleen Nolan (1975)
First woman to win an Oscar for songwriting: Barbra Streisand (for Evergreen) (1976)
First woman to be nominated for a DGA Directing Award but not get an Oscar nomination: Randa Haines (1986, for Children of a Lesser God); only two would follow, Streisand in 1991 and Valerie Faris in 2006
First (and only) woman to host the Oscars solo: Whoopi Goldburg (1994)
First woman to win an Original Score Academy Award: Rachel Portman (for Emma) (1996)

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Amazing list. Felt a bit of pride at seeing Florence Lawrence & Mary Pickford at the top of the post. Sadly still waiting for a Native woman to be nominated for either acting prize.

Also some more trivia, in '83 Buffy Sainte-Marie became the first Aboriginal woman to win an Oscar for co-writing the music to "Up Where We Belong."

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWayne B.

Andrew & John T -- good points. i adjusted,

March 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If you ignore a certain gentleman, your banner is a nice way to celebrate International Women's Day: cinematic women reading.

Can't think you missed anything, hmmm, First Woman to win an Oscar for playing a Royalty (you know how Oscar loves those) Katharine H as a Queen for The Lion in Winter (67) and Audrey Hepburn as a Princess in Roman Holiday (53)

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

I wanted to say "first actress to become a bird on screen: Michelle PFeiffer in Ladyhawke, beating Natalie Portman by 26 years but then i realized maybe there was someone before Pfeiffer and how does one look THAT up ;)

March 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

First woman to direct herself in a movie: Ida Lupino, The Bigamist (1953)

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSales on Film

A bit off-topic. Did you check out Freida Pinto's upcoming films? All sound really interesting even though none of them are wide-release hollywood films. I would like to hear your comments on it.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKD

@ Dylan: Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls was so dominant that year there wasn't really even a runner-up. If Dreamgirls had not been released that year, I think the Oscar would have gone to Cate Blanchett. Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi were too much of outsiders to win, and they split the Babel votes. Like Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2003, Abigail Breslin was lucky to get a nomination and was never really taken seriously as a threat to win like Hailee Steinfeld was this year. And who knows? Maybe Emily Blunt (or even Anne Hathaway--yes, in Supporting--you know how it is with AMPAS and category fraud) in Prada might have snuck in and stole all the "young ingenue" votes.

As it was, I think Barraza was probably the distant runner-up to Hudson that year.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPercy

I thought maybe someone could make an Aung San Suu Kyi biopic to get Sandra Oh an Oscar, and then I realized Hollywood directors would rather cast Angelina Jolie or some other ethnic-looking white actor for the role. (I heard Luc Besson is directing something with Michelle Yeoh, but I don't think it's even going to be released in the US.)

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPercy

Can we predict a current Asian actress who we think could be the first to win Best Actress?

I choose Gong Li.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDylan

Of course, Meryl has a category of her own. :)

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjc valencia

I love for Maggie Cheung to win one!

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Josh & Dylan -- thatll be difficult since one is retired and the other is approaching the age where you can't get arrested by Oscar (sigh). I'm still sad Gong Li didn't get traction for FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE.

March 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@ John T....Whoopi was the first woman to host the Oscars solo, but Ellen DeGeneres also hosted it in 2007.

I really loved reading this article. Really interesting and fascinating notes.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Looking up Audrey Munson on Wikipedia, that's a juicy, actressy biopic waiting to happen.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRax

The Academy always seems to ignore Asian film... For this years ‘In Memoriam’, they failed to mention the passing of Hideko Takamine, one of the very greatest actresses of Japanese film history.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

In terms of Asian Actresses getting the nod for Best Actress/Supporting Actress, If they can get the "right" roles Tang Wei and Zhang Ziyi could get there (They're young, beauty and talented. All the things the Academy values short of deglamming). Then again, both should have been nominated for their roles in Ang Lee's Best Films last decade but they didn't even make a blip on Oscars radar, so maybe not. Well if nothing else, at least both ladies made my personal Oscars for last decade (the video project of which is currently in limbo).

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

First things first: Wooow Nathianiel you are AWESOME! I enjoyd this list so much. Thanks dude

Well you should have included Hattie for first african american to win an Oscar

What about first woman with a disability like Marlee to win an Oscar?

First woman to win an Oscar for cross dressing?

I was surprised that no woman has ever been nominated for cinematography

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

First woman to direct a Foreign Film Language Academy Award winner--Marleen Gorris for "Antonia's Line". #2- Caroline Link (Nowhere in Africa). #3- Susanne Bier. Ironically Lina Wertmuller was nominated for Best Director and Foreign Film, but both lost.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Downs

The Asian actress topic at the Oscars is always interesting to discuss, if totally depressing.

There haven't been ANY Asian Best Actress nominees in the modern era, Easy Asian or otherwise. However, not for lack of trying since Gong Li (for a number of her early to mid 90s breakthrough performances), Maggie Cheung, Tang Wei and Kim Hye-ja all gained some attention in their respective years but not much traction. Zhang Ziyi was poised for a nomination at some point during the past decade but seemed to barely miss out on both of her real chances: Crouching Tiger, for which she won the Indie Spirit, and especially for Memoirs of a Geisha where she bagged Globe, SAG and even BAFTA nods but no Oscar at the last second. Then again, I would've hated for Memoirs to have been associated with a huge breakthrough like that. Yikes.

Rinko's Supporting Actress nod is somewhat miraculous all considering but she never had a prayer's shot at winning. However, this is totally one of those instances that if the members were forced to watch all the nominees in order to vote, I think she could've pulled an upset because Hudson's win was pure narrative and deafening hype, I still firmly believe to this day. Plus, Kikuchi won from the Chicago Film Critics which is kinda interesting if you think that Ebert = influence. Alas, she's one of the most amazing wins that never was.

I bet the first Asian Best Actress win happens within the next 10 years and for some totally gorgeous and random young newbie for an English-speaking performance. In a comedy. LOL WATCH.

Nathaniel, I'm with you on Gong Li getting next to no traction for FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE. What was THAT about? Ditto for Shanghai Triad.

Anyways, this was indeed a nice way to celebrate International Women's Day as only The Film Experience can! :)

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I believe that there already IS an out gay actress that not only has been nominated for an acting Oscar, but who has won Best Actress twice. In her own way and not giving interviews or making a fuss about it, Jodie Foster finally came out when she thanked and acknowledge her parter at an industry event. It surely is as much coming out as when Oscar winners thank their boyfrien, wife or husband of the same sex.
The IMDB even says that [Jodie] "was in a serious relationship with Cydney Bernard since they met on the set of the movie Sommersby (1993) until they broke up in 2008."
And if you want to read more:

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos Celesia

Lily Tomlin is a gay actress...

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdaniel

Neither Tomlin nor Foster were out to the public during the time of their nominations/wins.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRax

Rax - -- that's what i'm talking about. You can't count Jodie & Lily as they definitely were not out at the time.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I wonder why the bias against Asian women though? I think Asian women tend to give more subtle performances and as a result, the Academy tends to overlook them. Gong Li is a great actress, but most of her performances look effortless. However, when you look at some great Korean actress performances that have come out recently ("Secret Sunshine", "the Maid", "Mother", "Poetry"), they are powerful and understated. Also, there's the language barrier. A lot of meaning is probably lost when translated. I think the Academy members might not pay so much attention to other physical things when they are busy reading the subtitles.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarshall1

Nothing to comment on but I wanted to say that I love this kind of posts!

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T
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