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Key scenes for Oscar-nominated actors

Characters played by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and other nominees each had a specific turning point.

February 07, 2012|By Randee Dawn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Demian Bichir in a scene from "A Better Life."
Demian Bichir in a scene from "A Better Life." (Merrick Morton / AP )

This year's lead actor and actress nominees all turned in stellar performances, but each also had one key moment in which their character crystallized and made Oscar voters sit up and take notice.

ACTOR

Demian Bichir ("A Better Life")

Gardener Carlos Galindo is doing the best he can to make a life for himself and his son, but hardship surrounds him at every turn, from his son's interest in joining a gang to looming immigration officials.

Key scene: "I used to joke with Demian, saying, 'We have the Oscar scene coming up on Day 38,'" says director-producer Chris Weitz. That scene — in which Galindo has just a short time to impart all of his wisdom to his son, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow while explaining his own choices and sacrifices — is delivered in a quiet, steady manner that hits audiences hard. "It's one of those scenes where everything hinges on what's going to be communicated in that particular moment," Weitz adds. "He's in danger of losing his son, and it's like dying."

George Clooney ("The Descendants")

Wealthy Matt King is a neglectful and ultimately betrayed husband and father whose wife lies in a coma. King must reconnect with his children, learn to forgive and protect his family's heritage — all within the space of a few days.

Key scene: King stands before his comatose wife as the machines keeping her alive are turned off. Notes producer Jim Burke, "He's forgiving her for what she's done, and in another way he's forgiving himself for his own shortcomings as a husband and a father. It's a confluence of emotion and vulnerability going on there that I thought was wonderful."

Jean Dujardin ("The Artist")

Silent film actor George Valentin is the crown prince of Hollywood whose fate intersects with plucky song-and-dance gal Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at the dawn of the talkies.

Key scene: Early on, as George and Peppy are shooting the movie-within-a-movie, he loses himself a little more to her in each take of the scene. "It's compelling because you see him go from being a comedic, funny character in a movie to being a man who is incredibly intrigued and attracted by this woman," says executive producer Richard Middleton. "By the end there's this vulnerability, this yearning to connect. There aren't a lot of actors who can go from comedy to vulnerability within 30 seconds, without any dialogue."

Gary Oldman ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy")

Veteran spy George Smiley must uncover a Russian mole within the agency during the Cold War.

Key scene: When Smiley recounts his first meeting with his greatest adversary, the camera never strays from his face. The scene is approximately four to five pages, says producer Robyn Slovo, and it's simply Oldman doing a monologue. "I found it spellbinding from the moment he spoke," she recalls. "George Smiley is a very unsentimental character … and in that scene he's slightly drunk and reveals a great deal about himself because he's talking about his wife. Gary is talking for quite a few minutes, and to create a world without pictures that is purely reliant on his performance — it's so beautifully nuanced and controlled."

Brad Pitt ("Moneyball")

As the real-life Billy Beane, general manager of the struggling, cash-poor Oakland A's, who stumbles on a statistical key that lifts his team out of the dumps, Pitt plays a man who saw leaving his mark on the game as his mission in life.

Key scene: Pitt has some fast-talking dialogue, but his real strengths come out of his silences, says producer Mike De Luca. The film's opening scene, a slow zoom in on his weary face as he listens to the outcome of another losing game, is attention-grabbing yet speaks volumes. Even so, De Luca prefers when Pitt, post-victory, says that he's trying to change the game. "What I think he's saying under those words is 'If we do this, my life will have meant something,'" De Luca says. "Brad tees up the entire ending with that scene."

ACTRESS

Glenn Close ("Albert Nobbs")

In "Albert Nobbs," Close plays a woman who for three decades has lived and worked as a waiter in 19th century Ireland. That meant she plays against gender and as one of the invisible serving class. "Playing in restraint and invisibility is almost impossible," says producer Bonnie Curtis. "To be able to pull that off to the length she does is unbelievable."

Key scene: Nobbs visits another woman living as a man named Hubert (Janet McTeer) in "his" home and shares her back story, and in the scene Close gently allows Nobbs' personality and interior life to unspool with a delicacy and hesitancy that makes her self-imposed repression palpable.

Viola Davis ("The Help")

Few actresses cry as composedly and as well as Viola Davis, but there's more than that to her performance as a long-suffering Southern maid at the dawn of the civil rights era who offers up her stories to an aspiring writer.

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