An Academy Award-winning performance doesn't take place in a single scene, but the right mix of a great acting job plus a steady hand by the director can guide a well-crafted role into that sweetest of spots. Yet often whether a performance is extraordinary or merely good can, in fact, come down to just a matter of key moments on-screen. Here are what the producers, directors and writers of this year's lead acting categories think are the spots their nominated stars hit their marks above and beyond what was called for.
Click on a name to jump directly to a specific nominee's performance or scroll through the list and watch them all.
Lead actress nominees:
Lead actor nominees:
Cate Blanchett | "Carol"
The setup: Carol (Blanchett) has a hard time staying quiet while her fate as a mother is discussed by a roomful of men in a lawyer's office and finds a way to gain the moral high ground.
Key scene: “When she interrupts their literal, and figurative, male narrative and says, ‘Can I speak,' that is such an outrageous thing for her to say. She delivers a speech that is so full of defiance and vulnerability, speaking with such eloquence and clarity — while almost not being able to speak at all. It's a master class in acting. From that moment in the film she goes into battle at great, great cost.”
— Elizabeth Karlsen, producer
Brie Larson | "Room"
The setup: Ma (Larson) has to reveal a startling truth to her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has grown up inside a shed: That there is an outside world and they must escape into it.
Key scene: “When he refuses [to believe her], she is overcome by despair and resentment — and in a moment of total nakedness, Ma is gone and we see for the first time Joy: young, helpless, totally out of her depth. Brie is magnificent here. We can feel her panic, see her hope crumble. It's the sheer immediate truthfulness of her performance that floored me on the day, in the edit and still does today.”
— Lenny Abrahamson, director
Jennifer Lawrence | "Joy"
The setup: Budding entrepreneur Joy (Lawrence) is distraught and shears her hair — then strides into a hotel for a confrontation that will shape her life.
Key scene: “I wanted there to be a whole, ‘I don't need to assume there's anything I can't do because I'm a woman' moment — and that's the moment Jennifer does that. She transforms her psyche. It's not like Jennifer does anything specific, but in a very believable real way she lets you read her soul. It's almost like you can see her subconscious and unconscious giving her the power and strength and fearlessness to do that in that moment.”
— John Davis, producer
Charlotte Rampling | "45 Years"
The setup: Kate (Rampling) receives disturbing news from her longtime husband Jeff (Tom Courtenay) after the body of his former girlfriend is discovered.
Key scene: “We always saw this initial reveal as a quiet explosion, and slowly throughout the film the ripples affect the characters and Kate starts to fall apart. We see on Charlotte's face the beginnings of her doubts and fears appearing from underneath; she's great at showing these small existential crises coming out, then being pushed back down again.”
— Andrew Haigh, director
Saoirse Ronan | "Brooklyn"
The setup: After leaving her homeland of Ireland for possibly the last time, Eilis (Ronan) faces her future as an adult when a nervous young woman on her first crossing speaks with her.
Key scene: “She asks if Eilis is moving to America; has she heard of Brooklyn — and you can see in Saoirse that this conversation is the last thing she needs right now. But she makes this choice to be kind. Her eyes flick down and something softens around her. You realize in that moment she's turned into that experienced woman. It was like watching a master archer hit a bull's-eye. I never fail to shed a tear looking at that scene.”
— John Crowley, director
Bryan Cranston | "Trumbo"
The setup: Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) decides to finally take credit for a film he wrote (and won an Academy Award for).
Key scene: “The interview we re-created here is readily available now on YouTube. Bryan knew that his portrayal could easily be compared to the real Trumbo. We were determined not to mimic Dalton but to try to channel the man. Trumbo was an incredibly complicated man, with a wide range of both virtues and faults. To portray this larger-than-life, extraordinary artist, Bryan held nothing back. I think he blew the doors off.”
— Jay Roach, director
Matt Damon | "The Martian"
The setup: After being trapped on Mars for an extended period, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) finally finds a way to escape.
Key scene: “The scene in the capsule just before he takes off at the end of the movie is the first time he's allowed himself to break down and face his fear after facing death for as long as he did on the alien planet. It's so emotional and human and vulnerable, yet you see him pull himself back together. Matt inhabits a full spectrum of emotion and fear and courage in that scene. He's so human.”
— Simon Kinberg, producer
Leonardo DiCaprio | "The Revenant"
The setup: After crawling out of the grave his son's murderer has buried him in, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) discovers his son's body left out in the snow.
Key scene: “The intense range of emotion Leo conveys, all without any dialogue, still haunts me. He lays down next to his son to die with him, a heartbreaking moment. But Glass can't die and Leo opens his eyes, shifting into something very primal and summoning the will to say goodbye to his son. It's an unforgettable scene where Leo makes you feel everything Glass is going through in a very powerful and memorable way, all with his eyes.”
— Mary Parent, producer
Michael Fassbender | "Steve Jobs"
The setup: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is once again asking for Steve Jobs (Fassbender) to acknowledge the Apple II team's contributions as he introduces the iMac. But unlike their other spats, this one is happening in front of a room of Apple staff.
Key scene: “The scene gets at the heart of the difference between Steve and Woz and the tension that's run through their relationship for years. Woz says, ‘The things you make are better than you are, my friend.' And Steve says, ‘That's the idea, my friend.' Michael plays the scene still, calm and in control — no matter how much his integrity is attacked. It's an electric moment.”
— Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter
Eddie Redmayne | "The Danish Girl"
The setup: Einar (Redmayne) steps in to model for his wife's painting and dons the outfit meant for the absent female model, realizing a surprising truth about himself.
Key scene: “This moment was utterly key in terms of reconnecting with her authentic self. This is about a long-repressed trans self that is awakened and I told Eddie it was about balancing pain and joy, or shame and hope. But a door is opening in Lili's mind, and the whole scene is on a knife's edge. Eddie brilliantly balances these competing pulls and tensions, and that's the joy of the scene.”
— Tom Hooper, director
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