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:
Christian Bale / "American Hustle"
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."
Bruce Dern / "Nebraska"
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."
Leonardo DiCaprio / "The Wolf of Wall Street"
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."
Chiwetel Ejiofor / "12 Years a Slave"
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"
The setup: As a con artist roped into working with the FBI, Adams' Sydney Prosser must decide whether she can go through with the plan to undermine the agent working with them, or fall for him — and both seem possible.
Key scene: "There's a scene after she's been released from custody and is back in the apartment with Irving," producer Jonathan Gordon says. "It's all crumbling around her, and in the midst of all that she goes from falling apart to finding strength to take control of the situation. There's this fearless moment when she goes from an almost desperate manic state to becoming powerful and uncompromising in the next minute. Those are turns you'd see an actor take over the course of two hours in a movie, but Amy does it in a matter of minutes. It's such a deft performance because you don't see any of the moves happening."
Cate Blanchett / "Blue Jasmine"
The setup: The wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financial swindler is brought low by their loss of money and prestige and falls on the mercy of her estranged, working-class sister for help.
Key scene: "There wasn't one scene where Cate wasn't exceptional," producer Letty Aronson says. "But the scene where her husband says he's leaving her, and she has a complete breakdown and calls and turns him in [to the Feds] — that's a pivotal scene because it changes everybody's life, the sister's, the boyfriend's, Alec [Baldwin] gets arrested and commits suicide … her life is in tatters. And you know she brought it all on herself. Then, at the very end, when she has nothing any more, sitting on the park bench and alone is just brilliant, you feel the overall performance. Those are the key scenes to the film."
Sandra Bullock / "Gravity"
The setup: While working on the Hubble Space Telescope, a first-time astronaut and her veteran mentor are cast adrift when space debris destroys their shuttle.
Key scene: "The scene where Sandra is just spinning away, hyperventilating and in a panic, she's absolutely out of control," producer David Heyman says. "She has to go from that to a gradual acceptance that she is lost, that no one is going to save her. There's nowhere to hide, no cut, all done in one shot. She's drifting off into the void physically, which reflects emotionally where she is in the film. She has to do it all behind a visor and in a space suit — there's no physical means of expression except her eyes and her breath. And she did all of this while being filmed largely in what we called the light box. It was an incredibly technical exercise as well as being a beautiful acting moment in pure performance."
Judi Dench / "Philomena"
The setup: A woman whose child was taken away from her and adopted into another family searches for him many years later with the help of a journalist.
Key scene: "At the end of the movie, she's watching her son's life unfold on a TV screen, and we see her react to a life she never got to witness," says producer/writer/co-star Steve Coogan. "Our heart goes out to her, but her expression is all about her face — the camera is so close; it's like all the lines on her face tell a story and the pain is etched on her face literally. It's what you hope for when you write a story, because when you're down to the wire with drama, you are at the mercy of your lead actor. They either invest that moment with everything you hoped for or they don't, and of course Judi did — she elevated that moment and made it poetic."
Meryl Streep / "August: Osage County"
The setup: A prescription pill-addicted, cancer-stricken, vituperative mother snipes at her grown children in the wake of their father's unexpected suicide.
Key scene: "For me, it's the very long dinner scene after the funeral," producer Grant Heslov says. "It's one of the great scenes I've seen in years — and it's something like 15, 17 minutes long. She's clearly at the moment where she's most screwed up as a character — she's high and her husband has died, and she picks at every single person and there's no fear in her performance. Meryl allows herself to go there, and she's a horrible character when you think about it. But she's so willing to do it, there's no 98% — everything is 100%. When you're actually there, watching her do it, you're getting to look inside a world you can't believe. And each take was better than the next."