10. Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire
His career is a textbook example of the dictum that overnight success does not guarantee longevity. Gooding has appeared consistently in movies ever since his appearance in 1991's Boyz n the Hood, but none of his performances have come close to matching his star-making, Oscar-winning turn as a professional football player in 1996's Jerry Maguire, particularly afterward. An intelligent romantic comedy, the movie belongs to stars Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger (in another breakthrough performance), but Gooding commands attention during every scene he's in, without stealing moments from his co-stars. Although the actor hasn't gotten near an Academy Award nomination since, his histrionic acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor in 1997 is continually seen in montages on Oscar night.
9. Cameron Diaz in The Mask
She didn't think seriously about acting until she landed her first film role, after which she decided it might be a good idea to take some acting lessons. Diaz was 21 and working as a model when her agent recommended she audition for The Mask (1994), a loopy Jim Carrey vehicle. Diaz landed the part of lounge singer Tina Carlyle, Carrey's love interest, over Vanessa Williams. When Diaz sauntered into a bank in a tiny red dress very early in the film, it was definitely a "Who is that?!" moment for audiences. For an encore, Diaz appeared in a series of small, indie films that went unnoticed before solidifying her place in Hollywood with a popular performance in 1998's There's Something About Mary. Her career since has been a balancing act between prestige parts (Being John Malkovich, Gangs of New York) and continued bombshell roles (Bad Teacher).
8. Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
Among movie stars he's one of the biggest, he's a pretty boy who's been in relationships with some of the most beautiful women in the world, but success didn't come easily for Brad Pitt. He left his native Missouri to make it big in Hollywood, only to get stuck for four years in television guest spots and under-the-radar movies that often didn't get released. By the time Thelma & Louise came along in 1991, his talents as an actor were already well developed. His character of a cowboy hitchhiker in that proto-feminist film may look like a simple beefcake role on the surface, but if that were the case the movie would have suffered. Instead, his performance elevates it. Even after Thelma & Louise, raising his profile was still a struggle for Pitt; it was playing against type in 1994's Interview With the Vampire that finally solidified his true potential.
7. Morgan Freeman in Street Smart
Freeman has said publicly that he now wishes he hadn't remained so long with TV's The Electric Company, as if those seven years he spent playing Easy Reader and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire on the PBS children's show kept the actor from reaching his full potential. It's certainly debatable. It was 10 more years after Freeman left The Electric Company in 1977 before he received his first Oscar nomination, for his breakthrough turn in Street Smart. Christopher Reeve had long sought financing to make the film, in which he stars as a journalist investigating prostitution, only to fade into the background every time Freeman's no-nonsense pimp appears on screen. The movie opened doors for Freeman. Glory and Driving Miss Daisy followed within the next couple of years. The actor finally won an Oscar in 2004 for his work on Million Dollar Baby.
6. Nicole Kidman in To Die For
There are breakthroughs, and then there are breakthroughs, and Nicole Kidman experienced both early in her career. Her acting began when she was still a teenager in her native Australia, in movies only Australians would know like BMX Bandits and Bush Christmas. Her American breakthrough came when she received good notices for her performance in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm, but that only led to more strictly commercial pictures like Days of Thunder and Far and Away. Kidman's sexy, naughty turn as a bubble-headed but feloniously ambitious TV weathergirl in Gus Van Sant's darker-than-dark comedy To Die For in 1995 catapulted the actress to far more prestigious acting ranks. Three Oscar nominations have followed for Kidman, with one win — for 2002's The Hours, the kind of dry, high-toned affair that To Die For was anything but.
5. Harrison Ford in Star Wars
In Hollywood, they say, it's who you know. Bit parts in movies and TV shows in the late 1960s and early 1970s weren't paying the bills for Ford, so to support his family he became a carpenter. That's how he became acquainted with George Lucas. Ford built cabinets for the filmmaker, who on the basis of this association decided to give the actor/carpenter a small but noticeable role in American Graffiti (1973). A couple years later Lucas hired Ford to work on Star Wars, reading lines with the actors brought in to audition for the blockbuster, but was so impressed with Ford's take on Han Solo that he cast him for the part instead. The actor's cynical approach to the character gave that 1977 movie the edge it needed, and the picture's major success sent Ford's screen career into the stratosphere, where it remained for a couple of decades.
4. Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate
The casting wasn't ideal for this classic. Hoffman, 30, was playing Benjamin Braddock, a college graduate set to turn 21. Anne Bancroft, the actress starring as Braddock's elicit paramour twice his age, was only 36, while her 19-year-old daughter, Elaine, was portrayed by 27-year-old Katharine Ross. Adjustments were made in the writing, costuming and performance to widen the perceived age gap between Hoffman and Bancroft. In the end, all three actors received Oscar nominations for their work on the film, and Hoffman, who before then had been relegated to stage and commercial work, most of it obscure, was on his way to becoming a movie star. Director Mike Nichols, who did earn an Academy Award, had initially wanted Robert Redford for Braddock, which would've made The Graduate an entirely different movie, and very possibly not a successful one.
3. Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
It's an image that contrasts strikingly with the serious, even surly actor and social activist Sean Penn has become today. Jeff Spicoli, a stoned surfer dude whose contributions to the fictional Ridgemont High School were limited to popularizations of the moniker “dude” and the phrase “busted!,” is remembered today as Penn's first memorable screen performance. But it didn't really happen that way. Penn's first significant movie role came a year earlier, in 1981's military school drama Taps, a film that's recalled today, if it's recalled at all, for featuring one of Tom Cruise's early screen appearances. Penn first received critical acclaim a year after Fast Times for a largely forgotten picture called Bad Boys. But Fast Times, just another dumb high school flick at the time, is now considered a classic, and Penn’s performance is one big reason why.
2. John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever
Surely there would have been a disco craze in the late 1970s without John Travolta. As it is, the two are synonymous, thanks to this 1977 film that brought the disco subculture to a wide audience. Travolta was already a known quantity when the role of Tony Manero presented itself, thanks to his role on the television sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, which began two years earlier. But nothing about Travolta's TV turn as Vinnie Barbarino suggested the depth of talent he would exhibit as Manero, a young man from Brooklyn with a life devoid of hope or interest until he hit the dance floor. Saturday Night Fever wasn't just a big hit (the Bee Gees soundtrack obviously helped); the critics raved about it as well, and Travolta would earn his first of two Oscar nominations for his performance. Next for the actor: the films Grease and Urban Cowboy, both huge hits.
1. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman
Roberts took a chance on this role. Pretty Woman (1990) was originally envisioned as a dark, edgy drama about prostitution, and because of an early script's tone the part of Vivian Ward was turned down by a slew of prominent actresses — Meg Ryan, Molly Ringwald, Karen Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daryl Hannah, Michelle Pfeiffer. Julia Roberts said yes, and shortly after filming began the decision was made to turn the picture into a fizzy Cinderella story. Roberts' effervescent performance was the principal reason for the movie's enormous success. She wasn't an unknown at the time. Roberts had first received attention for 1988's Mystic Pizza, and earned an Oscar nomination a year later for Steel Magnolias. But those were ensemble pictures. Pretty Woman was Roberts' vehicle. She was paid $300,000 for the film; 13 years later she was bringing in $25 million a picture.