Pinning down the "best" scene of any Oscar-nominated performance is something of a Stygian nightmare for producers because — as they correctly protest — if an actor or actress has been nominated, they have far more than one great scene. But when ballots are being ticked off by academy voters later this month, most of them will have a single, crystallizing, moment held in their memory that helps them choose one performance over another. Here, then, are 10 of those great, possibly award-winning, moments:
The setup: To avoid jail time, two low-level con artists are enlisted by an FBI agent to teach them how the business works … but the agent may be the one who ends up getting conned.
Key scene: "The opening scene summarizes a big theme of the movie, which is construction — he's constructing this elaborate con, and it's so symbolic of the film where he's constructing his hair," producer Richard Suckle says. "He's not saying a word, which is a testament to Christian's skills as an actor; he's creating a character that sucks you in slowly as you're seeing Irving Rosenfeld for the first time, in a really raw state." Adds producer Jonathan Gordon, "It's almost in real time that you watch him go from a mess, and in spite of his girth and unconventional hair he is handsome and confident and vulnerable and conflicted. You see all these things going on in his eyes."
The setup: An aging man believes he's won $1 million in a mail-in sweepstakes, and convinces his son to take him to pick up his prize. When he's thwarted, his son finds a way to get him the prize he's always wanted: A truck.
Key scene: "I keep going back and forth between the visit to the old house and the drive through town at the end. The walk through [his childhood home] is the emotional center of his performance and the heart of his performance as well," says producer Albert Berger. "In the walk through the house you get the sense of the arbitrariness of life, and in a sense the whole movie is this son's examination of who is this strange man I call my father." Adds producer Ron Yerxa, "In the final drive-through scene, Bruce managed to evoke being the recipient of his son's generosity, yet also he was able to stand tall in the truck and have this moment of reassertion of strength for himself."
The setup: Penny-stocks king Jordan Belfort indulges in every form of decadence possible on his way up the Wall Street ladder, and has a long way to fall once the Feds decide to bring him down.
Key scene: "There's a lot of talk about the Quaalude scene, but the moment that crystallizes it all for me is where Leo is rallying the brokers as they're about to start selling the Steve Madden IPO," producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff says. "When he gives that speech about 'pick up the phone and start dialing,' for me that transformation is breathtaking to watch. But also early in the movie there's a scene with Matthew McConaughey [as Leo's first boss] that I think will go down in history as iconic and classic. Leo's performance is incredible, and the dynamic between them is incredible. It is a classic, classic scene."
The setup: A free black man is kidnapped into slavery in pre-Civil War America and must endure until he can be brought home.
Key scene: "The emblem of the brilliance of Chiwetel's performance as Solomon is the one that precedes him being rescued by the authorities, right at the very end," producer Jeremy Kleiner says. "It's a performance that's all expressiveness, like the most finely tuned instrument, as he's looking around, waiting, and going through the gamut of human emotions and psychological swings. Through facial expressions and his eyes, and how at one point he appears to be looking at us, the audience, for a split second — it's as if he's looking through us. He has this indomitable human dignity and resilience, a grace or nobility of character that when it is expressed makes the inhumanity of man in the system of slavery appear in relief — and that point/counterpoint I find very powerful."
Matthew McConaughey / "Dallas Buyers Club"
The setup: Ron Woodroof is a substance-abusing, womanizing Texan who learns he has days to live after being diagnosed with AIDS, but he refuses to take that diagnosis lying down.
Key scene: "When they diagnose him in the hospital room and he storms out the door — from that moment on you are seeing Matthew McConaughey in a way you've never seen him before, and it sets the whole performance," producer Robbie Brenner says. "That moment is so real, and it's such a dynamic, emotional and powerful scene. I remember being there when he filmed it and thinking to myself — we were all crammed into this hospital room with a curtain in the way, so I could just peek into the scene — and hearing his voice and delivery, I got chills. It always struck me as the most powerful scene in the movie."
Amy Adams / "American Hustle"