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Awards

10 leading performances and 10 key scenes that could help these nominees take home the Oscar

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in a scene from ‘Manchester by the Sea’
Sometimes a quietly awkward scene can be packed with emotion -- and Oscar potential -- like this one with Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.”
(Amazon Studios)

A facial twitch. A whispered word. A long, heartfelt monologue. A key scene for an actor can be any of those things – but when it comes, it can't be ignored. Like an arm wrapped around a shoulder, it pulls the audience into the character's world and holds them there. And sometimes, that's exactly what can earn the actor an Oscar. Here are the 10 scenes that could do just that for each of the 2017 Academy Award lead actor and actress nominees.

Click on a name to jump directly to a specific nominee's performance or scroll through the list and watch them all.

Lead actor nominees:

Casey Affleck | Andrew Garfield | Ryan Gosling | Viggo Mortensen | Denzel Washington

Lead actress nominees:

Isabelle Huppert | Ruth Negga | Natalie Portman | Emma Stone | Meryl Streep

Casey Affleck | Lee, “Manchester by the Sea”

The scene: Lee meets his ex-wife, Randi, on the street and they have an emotional discussion – of sorts – that skirts around the tragedy that drove them apart.

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The greatness: “My producing partner picked this scene out of the dailies even before we'd cut the film,” says producer Kimberly Steward. “There's not a lot of words between them, but there's so much powerful emotion in their facial expressions and how they interact physically. Casey's playing Lee's stoicism – he's a hard-working guy – and Casey's so good at playing these dual characters and bringing subtlety to his role.”

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Andrew Garfield | Pvt. Doss, “Hacksaw Ridge”

The scene: “We call it ‘the decision,’” says producer Bill Mechanic. In the scene, Desmond has been very certain of his faith, but has just seen his friend die on the battlefield. He asks God if he should retreat (as his fellow soldiers have) or go back to help others, alone and unarmed.

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The greatness: “Andrew goes through this range of performance from being lost and in doubt, to seeking guidance and deciding. It's played almost completely silently and beautifully; you can see the wheels cranking and moving in his head, and then you see him make his decision.”

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Ryan Gosling | Sebastian, “La La Land”

The scene: As the camera slowly zooms in on Sebastian playing piano in a restaurant, his simple tune turns virtuoso – and then pulls back to reveal the reality of his mundane existence.

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The greatness: “It so fully encapsulates not just the movie we wanted to make, but Ryan's ability to pull it off,” says Jordan Horowitz (co-producer with Fred Berger and Marc Platt). “He makes an effortless move from classic movie star to contemporary movie star, and only Ryan Gosling is capable of that movement, in addition to the rigor and craft needed to pull off the piano work. We had no double!”

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Viggo Mortensen  | Ben, “Captain Fantastic”

The scene: Ben clings to his beliefs about how to raise his children in the face of his father-in-law's (Frank Langella) protests.

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The greatness: “It’s a turning point for Viggo’s character,” says producer Lynette Howell. “Until this moment he's been the hero of the story. He's grieving for his wife and in denial about his children’s emotional state and is feeling vulnerable. Viggo takes all that and weaves it into his performance — he's stunned and shocked at being challenged, and he's still fighting back. It’s beautiful, subtle and complex.”

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Denzel Washington  | Troy, “Fences”

The scene: Troy walks in with a baby he's sired from an affair and whose mother died in labor. He tells his wife Rose the child needs a mother. Rose takes the baby, tells him she has a mother now – but he has no wife.

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The greatness: “Rose says that, and the camera stays on Denzel,” says producer Todd Black. “You can see every emotion he's going through — the tragedy he created and the relief of getting this child to a mother. You see everything on his face in a non-verbal way, and you know the whole story of what he did, what he's feeling and how he's going to feel later.”

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Isabelle Huppert  | Michèle, “Elle”

The scene: At a dinner party, Michèle recounts to a neighbor the sordid details of her father's notorious murder spree, which ended with a photo of herself as a young child going the non-digital equivalent of viral.

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The greatness: “She doesn't take it lightly, but she tells it with nuance, by emphasizing the amount of animals that were killed [in the spree],” says director Paul Verhoeven. “She did it in one take, and the way she played it at the end even surprised me. You know it’s true and authentic, and yet you cannot completely identify.”

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Ruth Negga  | Mildred, “Loving”

The scene: While being photographed and interviewed by a Life magazine reporter, Mildred washes dishes and explains that while she and her husband may lose the court battle over their interracial marriage, they will win the war.

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The greatness: “Ruth has some of the most expressive eyes of any actor I’ve ever seen,” says producer Peter Saraf. “She knows what she’s doing and deep down also knows the bigger picture of their struggle. It all comes down to that line and one facial expression — and it passes across her face effortlessly, but so powerfully.”

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Natalie Portman | Jacqueline Kennedy, “Jackie”

The scene: While being interviewed by a journalist, Jackie Kennedy recounts the events of the day when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated before her eyes.

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The greatness: “We see how she breaks inside in this one simple shot, and I like the simplicity — the minimal elements she had to build a strong and convincing emotional moment that is very moving and triggers the film into the disaster that comes later,” says director Pablo Larraín. “Natalie is able to hide things in her performances, and sometimes those are the things that really penetrate the audience.”

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Emma Stone | Mia, “La La Land”

The scene: Mia singing her big number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which starts out as a stumbling tune and quickly becomes a soaring dramatic turn – all sung live on film.

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The greatness: “She has to tell a story,” says producer Jordan Horowitz. “She takes us on the full ride in this one scene — we think it’s going to be another humiliating audition, but then we hear her belting this anthem, which is what the movie is all about: It’s a call to arms for artists.”

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Meryl Streep | Florence, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

The scene: Aspiring opera singer Florence has surrounded herself with a professional singing coach and pianist — though none of her well-paid helpers tells her she can't sing. At her first public performance, she lets loose with a truly terrible warble.

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The greatness: “In order to sing badly, you have to be able to sing well,” says director Stephen Frears. “I never thought of anyone else who could play this part. And Meryl is so good, she never makes the woman seem ridiculous — you are always on Florence’s side.”

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