OSCARS: Recognizing “That Scene” That's Worthy Of Oscar Gold

Randee Dawn is an AwardsLine contributor.

What makes a sceneCate_Blanchett_Blue_Jasmine_Bench630 (1) Oscar-worthy is difficult to define, but everyone knows it when they see it. It’s an end as foreboding as they come. Cate Blanchett, mesmerizing as the title character in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, sits in a disheveled mess on a park bench in San Francisco, muttering to herself. It’s the nadir of Jasmine’s fall from grace, her first step AwardsLineon the ladder to bag-lady land. “That scene” is how it’s known in the business, the one that crystallizes everything about a character or a story and through which the actor surrenders to the part with everything he or she’s got. It’s a scene that when a viewer sees it, they know: This is a nomination, or an Academy Award, waiting to happen. Having “that scene” guarantees neither award nor nomination, and many roles win big prizes without one. But when a good scene arises, it can become an iconic piece of cinema.

“I remember watching Blue Jasmine and thinking, ‘Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in for an award this year, or at least a nomination,” says Letty Aronson, a producer on the film. “At the park bench scene, she’s so brilliant at portraying someone who is so fragile. She just collapses totally.”

“That last scene—you see it in her demeanor and face,” says The Wolf Of Wall Street producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, of Blanchett. “She’s incredible, and that movie has stuck with me.”

A good scene can help sustain buzz after the credits role, and that can be crucial when a film comes out early. Blue Jasmine premiered in August, but is still being talked about thanks to Blanchett’s portrayal, which has garnered the actress her fifth Oscar nomination and given her frontrunner status in the race.

But what kind of performance really helps define “that scene?” It’s one of those hard-to-describe, you-know-it-when-you-see-it moments of movie magic. There is at least one common ingredient: An actor who transcends the role, adding an element of unexpected behavior that nonetheless fits perfectly with the story, like a missing puzzle piece.

“It’s about surprise,” adds awards consultant Tony Angellotti. “If it’s someone we’re quite familiar with, it usually requires them to do something that’s not in their usual bag of tricks.”

“When I saw Matthew (McConaughey) for the firstmatthew4 time, I was scared, because he was completely unrecognizable,” says Dallas Buyers Club producer Robbie Brenner of her now Oscar-nominated star. “Then he started speaking. Having seen footage of Ron (Woodroof) and the way he spoke and moved, (McConaughey) just transformed (into him). That’s what an Oscar-worthy performance is, (one that) brings you to a place where you’re watching that actor and you’re in the moment with the person.”

“That scene” also enables the viewer to similarly lose him– or herself in a film. “If the audience member doesn’t see (the person) as an actor—they’re watching that story and they’re in that story—the actor becomes a great storyteller,” adds Captain Phillips producer Dana Brunetti. “A truly iconic scene transcends the fourth wall between viewer and movie.”

A receptive audience is the other half of the equation. An actress can give her all, a director can work his hardest, and every other below-the-line name can be at the top of their game, but if they don’t carry the audience on the journey, awards can be elusive. Yet none of this is something a film can plan for: No script has a page labeled “that scene,” which is part of what contributes to the magic of creating and observing movies. So many elements have to go right on the day of shooting, and later in postproduction, that it can’t be manufactured or relied on to spontaneously occur.

leomatthew1However, McConaughey has another noteworthy scene in The Wolf Of Wall Street, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, that wasn’t even fully scripted. “There’s a scene with Matthew and Leo that I think will go down in history as classic,” says producer Koskoff. “Matthew is playing his mentor, his first boss on Wall Street, and the way Matthew breaks it down for Leo about how the business works—his performance is incredible. The improv from what was on the page to what went on the screen is amazing.”

DiCaprio’s Oscar-worthy moment comes later, when his character, Jordan Belfort, urges his brokers to sell I.P.O. stocks he’s rigged ahead of time. “His intensity, his focus, his transformation is fully in that character right then,” Koskoff says. “That’s the defining moment, when you see how taken he is with the money and the lifestyle and how the money is pushing him to push his brokers.”

In American Hustle, the “big” scene involves developing two of the film’s key characters, played by american-hustle-stars-amy-adams-christian-baleAmy Adams and Christian Bale, both of whom are nominated for their roles. “They’re forced to go work for the FBI agent, and there’s a scene where they’re debating whether they should move forward or go a different way,” says Richard Suckle, a producer on the film. “It really tests and makes you question the foundation of their relationship, and it propels you into the rest of the film because you want to see if these characters will make it or not. It’s an amazing, intense, emotional, soulful scene.”

For other films, that key scene can come as a culmination of a long character arc, as in Nebraska, when Bruce Dern’s character triumphantly rides through town in a new pickup truck. “Everything in the movie has been leading up to that moment,” says producer Albert Berger. “It echoes Bruce’s career, so it’s great to see him ‘driving the car,’ so to speak. You could break that scene down into all of its elements, but the net effect is that it’s this great moment and a generous gesture on his son’s part in giving his father this moment he’s never had before.”

tomhanksphillipsSome of this awards season’s most memorable moments, however, turned out to not be so golden after all. Every prognosticator worth their weight in popcorn thought Tom Hanks was a frontrunner for an Oscar nomination for his riveting performance during the last scene in Captain Phillips. Two hours of uncertainty and brutality climax as Hanks’ Phillips is rescued—and he can finally give in to the shock and horror of what he’s been through. Hanks collapses mightily in a quivering, indelible emotional sequence set in the rescue destroyer’s infirmary, its realness enhanced by the actual Navy crew members tending to him. The fact that Hanks walked away nomination-less points to how elusive an Oscar-worthy scene can be.

Yet even without the Oscar nom, Hanks’ final scene in Captain Phillips will still be remembered as movie magic. “That scene,” as well as dozens of other indelible performances this season, remains iconic. Here a couple of the experts’ Oscar-worthy scenes from years past. What are yours?

CLASSIC MOVIES, CLASSIC MOMENTS

JACK NICHOLSON and LOUISE FLETCHER
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)

“After the party, Nurse Ratched (Fletcher) berates Brad Dourif’s character, and he ends up killing himself. And Nicholson’s character ends up strangling her. Everything Nicholson goes through, from the realization that he missed his opportunity to get away, through the defense and anger as Fletcher humiliates Dourif, ultimately his rage, which has been growing throughout the movie, just explodes.”
—Nebraska producer Albert Berger
RESULT: BEST ACTOR WIN (Nicholson),
BEST ACTRESS WIN (Fletcher)

COLIN FIRTH
THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

“When he actually made the speech—that’s what got him the Oscar. That’s the culmination of his character, that’s what the whole movie is leading up to.”
American Hustle
producer Charles Roven
RESULT: BEST ACTOR WIN (Firth)

  1. The only remotely memorable scene this year was Hanks in Phillips. As usual, I’m sure he’ll get it next year or the year after for something far less moving. How the game is played. Everything else was instantly forgettable.

    1. Eh, if your referring to the scene at the end of the film where Captain Phillips is being treated by the aircraft carrier’s medical staff and the reality of what has happened to him is finally hitting home, you are absolutely correct! It is Tom Hanks finest moment in a distinguished career.

      His win for “Philadelphia” is exactly what you’re talking about when you said an honor for “something far less moving.” It’s an OK film but Denzel Washington’s character was far more compelling as he went from a ignorant, homophobic every man to a real champion for his client.

      I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The Academy does an OK job when it comes to the actual winners each year. Where is really screws the pooch is its choice of nominees each year. Too often, it just misses the boat entirely.

    2. Hanks had two “That Scenes” this year. The other was the climax of SAVING MR. BANKS, when Walt drops his defenses and tells Mrs. Travers how his miserable childhood shaped the man he had become.

  2. THE scene is the country club getting to the car scene in wolf of Wall Street. It is one of many scenes that should win Leonardo dicaprio the oscar. I urge all voters who have not seen the last hour to watch Leonardo’s mesmerizing work.

  3. There is a scene at the end of ORDINARY PEOPLE where Donald Sutherland finally confronts Mary Tyler Moore, calling her out on telling him on the day of their son’s funeral she cared more about the socks he was wearing than about the fact that he was completely grief-stricken. The shock and hurt on her face actually make us feel for her, but instead of breaking down, she packs her bag and leaves. I know there is always a huge uproar about this film winning the Oscar over RAGING BULL, but it remains one of the most emotionally devastating portrayals of family dynamics and grief and loss, and it holds up extremely well. RAGING BULL is brilliant and stylized for sure, but don’t be fooled by the deceptive modesty of Redford’s film. It’s shattering.

    1. Agree, too. Ordinary People and especially that final scene just blew me away. Thankfully Redford didn’t have Ms. Moore drive away across the sunlit fields, her face gradually turning into a smile ; – )

  4. I could not agree more about ordinary people (and wolf). I watched ordinary people again and it really just brings you to absolute tears, it completely deserved best picture

  5. I could be wrong. But, I sense that Meryl Streep is a standard issue far left liberal actor who would not say she agrees with the late, great Margaret Thatcher about much of anything.

    That said, in my humble opinion, the “scene” in THE IRON LADY that clinched the Oscar for her last year was a very small one and, for most in the audience, probably imminently forgettable.

    Lady Thatcher was doing something she detested, visiting the doctor for her annual physical. The doctor asked her how she felt about something. That set her off. She scolded him, telling him that’s the problem with modern society. That, we are all taught how to get in touch with our feelings. Our minds, out thoughts – they are not to be trusted. Logic has no value.

    That is the difference between liberals and conservatives in a nutshell. Pure gold!

    1. Totally agree…I don’t know why the powers that be at each awards show kept showing the “black or white” tea scene…the doctor’s office monologue was brilliant, as well as her tirade in the conference room towards the end.

  6. Denzel Washington in GLORY… so many memorable scenes, but in my opinion the one that won it for him was when he gets whipped for “deserting”, when in reality he was really just looking for some shoes. Denzel steps up, defiantly pulls his shirt off, and locks eyes with Matthew Broderick. And as the soldier whips Denzel over and over, and the music crescendos just as his tears finally fall, you just know: THAT’s the moment he clinched it.

  7. I found him sleepwalking thru the movie and then he had one good scene, where he imho was good but was upstaged by a non-actor

    Glad the AMPAS agreed.

  8. Did not really see Cate Blanchett’s performance as Oscar worthy. I don’t think she has the acting chops to become a character.

    McConaughey, Hanks, DiCaprio and her are those type of actors who try hard but never really get there.

    1. Are you high?

      The truth is you don’t even know what you were looking at when you watched. Any actor can see all the layers, and plates she was juggling to pull that role off.

      People in the know, KNOW! She tackled a difficult role. It was laced with land mines and pitfalls, and kicked it’s you know what.

      Study a little so you can actually see what it takes to create and lift a character off the page.

      You basically just said that one of the most talented actresses working today has no talent.

      1. Oh come on, she is nowhere near as those great character actors like Judi Dench (who acted circles around her in Notes of a Scandal)
        She is OK but definitely not one of the greats.

  9. Are you kidding re “that” scene in The Wolf of Wall St”?? Unquestionably, it’s the “quaalude” scene that will go down in history as the most memorable. It’s the only scene anyone talks about from the brilliant film and is definitely one for the ages

  10. The “one scene” occuring to me immediately is Helen Hunt reading that letter in As Good As It Gets. Without it, I’m not sure if she could beat Judi Dench, Julie Christie, Helena Bonham Carter, and Kate Winslet.

  11. Jennifer Lawrence’s “I don’t like change” scene from American Hustle. Hardly a monologue. Three phrases in close-up, 30 seconds of pure movie magic and the reason she deserves another Oscar. Say what you want about accent inconsistencies but no-one can deny, to quote Peter Travers, she can be many things “sometimes all in the same scene, even in the same breath”.

  12. The scene where Solomon Northup is hanging by his neck, trying to hang on for dear life in the mud while plantation life goes on behind him. That was the scene of the year!

  13. Ellen Burstyn’s monologue about the red dress in Requiem for a Dream ftw.

    Each of the three times in recent history an actress has won Best Supporting for a musical has been because of a single showstopping number — Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables, Catherine Zeta Jones’ All That Jazz from Chicago, and Jennfier Hudson’s And I’m Telling You from Dreamgirls. Aside from those specific songs, the performances weren’t all that great (especially Hudson), but I guess that shows the strength of one great scene.

  14. The thing about WOLF is…there are so many great scenes. The Qualude scene is a comedic masterpiece. The scene with McConaughey is brilliant in the way it sets the tone of the film, and its strange absurdism. The IPO scene is great – “I WANT YOU TO BE TELEPHONE FUCKING TERRORISTS!!!” but to me, what this article is talking about is the scene by the actor, and there is ONE, one moment, where you watch it and go “This is the best performance of the year.”

    It’s when Belfort is going to resign. He’s scammed, cheated, fucked, stolen his way to the top. He has everything and all he has to do is walk away. And he goes up to do it. To hang it all up and walk away a winner. But then this change happens. He can’t. And it’s not about the money. It’s about the power. He’s addicted to being treated like a god. And it’s that shift, where he starts quiet and humble and telling them that he’s walking away. And then he sees the reverence they have. And he throws away the deal. It’s the last shot at salvation for this character. “THEY CAN BRING IN THE NATIONAL FUCKIN GUARD BECAUSE I’M – NOT – LEAVING!!!” and DiCaprio’s face, this grimace, this primal look. That scene has more range and scope than everything else I’ve seen this year.

    WOLF will be remembered as an American classic. For the money chant, for the ludes, for the speeches. It’s a little sad that – like with a lot of recent films – I don’t think the Academy will realize that until it’s too late. But in 20 years, I’m going to pop that disc in WAY before I pop in 2 YEARS A SLAVE.

  15. The more I watch Blue Jasmine, the more I’m glad Hawkins got a nom. She was way stronger a performer in the film than Blanchett, who kind of reminded me of Judy Davis, and not in a good way. Some actresses are just more natural in Allen’s work. And don’t have to try so hard.
    And the character of Jasmine just needed a 12 step program to snap her out of her egocentric bullshit. I think Woody hasn’t lived enough life to write about that subject, though. But to anyone in recovery, her character is just a frustrating hot mess that doesn’t need to be.

  16. Gotta disagree on THE KING’S SPEECH. For me it’s the more intimate scene when George, facing his coronation, breaks down in front of his wife blubbering “I’m not a king, I’m not a king… I’m a naval officer, that’s all I know.” Such raw, authentic emotion. Not as grand or triumphant as the culminating speech, just a small, gut-punch of a scene that makes you empathize with the character. It’s “that scene” that convinced me Firth should win.

  17. The issue here is the back and forth about “whose moment” is or isn’t deserving. Commenting on who gets there and who misses and what is authentic. The moment isn’t about the actor- their craft is to turn black and white text to brilliant color. “I drink your milkshake” are words on page until Daniel says them… but is that his “that” or is it something smaller- the way he moves his lips while considering the words in his conversation on the porch before finally “I have a competition in me”. The answer is: it is either, or neither. That Scene is the one which moved YOU. The one which spoke to you of realism and rang with truth because a fine actor took you 70% of the way and you meet them with another 30% of your own personal experience that makes “that scene” important for you. Personally, I feel this for Tom Cruise as he presents the sword at the end of The Last Samurai, for Vanessa Redgrave telling her shame at the end of Atonement, for Hanks at the end of Phillips, for Streep’s “truth telling” in Osage and Finnes completely overlooked final moments in ‘The Reader’ and Blanchette’s “HERE I AM” at the climax of ‘Notes on a Scandal’… But I know just as many well trained directors and performers who would consider a vast number of those scenes inferior to something that felt flat and lifeless from my perspective, say Lawrence’s performance in ‘Silver Linings’. It’s “that scene” that gets an actor there, the performance is a whole and encompassing experience for them- it is the number of voters who agree they had the moment at all. The number of people who felt a moment as a collection. No opinion here is wrong. That’s movie-making- its personal. No one is “high” AMPAS like the electoral college is a party. There is money, there is campaign, and there is eventually, consensus through a vote- but “that scene” is not what defines a nomination or a win- it is what makes any one of us feel more inspired or empowered to create and change.

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