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.
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."
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.
Key scene: Davis' Aibileen is a woman of few words, but her expressive face and mannerisms give voice to her character's fear and repression, conveying a strength that remains hidden until the final scenes, when she tells her nemesis that she is a "godless woman." "She showed the entire arc of a character in about three minutes," says producer Brunson Green. Fellow producer Chris Columbus agreed. "That's the point where you realize how incredibly pent-up and frustrated she's been; that's how I knew I was in the presence of greatness."
Rooney Mara ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo")
To become the brutal — and brutalized — hacker Lisbeth Salander who helps stop a killer, Mara underwent a radical physical transformation that had nothing to do with prosthetics.
Key scene: At the end of the film, she's left standing on the street, having seen her lover with his arm around another woman, and tosses in the Dumpster the expensive leather jacket she was about to give him. No words are spoken, and none are needed, which makes this a particularly affecting scene. "That final look on her face tells you everything she's going through," says producer Cean Chaffin. "We were nervous about it for her, but she nailed it. That's the tough stuff."
Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady")
An aging Margaret Thatcher reflects on her life in politics as she faces her fading years.
Key scene: Though there is a striking montage when Member of Parliament Thatcher is transformed via voice and poise lessons into the country's future leader, producer Damian Jones says he prefers the scene in which she's in her doctor's office as an old lady, being given a checkup she doesn't think she needs. "It's so thought-provoking, deep and full of wisdom and evidence that she's an extraordinary woman at the end of her years, and it's done with such pathos and poignancy — she just nailed it."
Michelle Williams ("My Week With Marilyn")
Playing an American icon such as Marilyn Monroe can easily slip into parody, but Williams showed audiences the woman behind the celebrity — making her by turns likable and sexy, damaged and delightful, infuriating and inspiring.
Key scene: The film is seen through the eyes of young film assistant Colin, who stands in for the audience — and both must fall for the actress at the same time if the movie is to succeed. In the dressing room scene where they first bond, "you know she's drugged or drunk, but behind that you see paranoia coming through," says producer David Parfitt. "You see [Colin] wake up to that, and she does this enchanting smile that gets me every time. She says, 'Call me Marilyn' — he's been saying 'Miss Monroe' — and that's the moment they connect."