Randee Dawn is an AwardsLine contributor.
What makes a scene 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 on 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 first 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.
However, 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 Amy 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.”
Some 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)
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.”
producer Charles Roven
RESULT: BEST ACTOR WIN (Firth)
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