Oscar actor nominees’ defining scenes

Where does a “best scene” in an Oscar-nominated actor or actress’ performance reside? In the words they say? In the actions they take? According to the filmmakers who worked with them, this year’s nominees seem to have done their best acting with their eyes, their silences, their violence and their souls. Here’s a look at the key scenes from this year’s lead acting nominees.

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Lead Actor

Click on images to watch key scenes.

Denzel Washington


As a cocky, substance-abusing airline pilot, Washington finally admits he has a problem, knowing he will be imprisoned for his actions. “Denzel’s confession is an unbelievable culmination of the character’s journey,” says screenwriter John Gatins.

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Hugh Jackman

'Les Misérables'

As recent parolee Jean Valjean, Jackman does some soul-searching before deciding to set out on a righteous path. “I think his soliloquy is absolutely amazing,” says producer Tim Bevan.

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Joaquin Phoenix

'The Master'

As the unfiltered, anger-filled Freddie Quell, Phoenix is locked in a jail cell where he goes into a rage. “Joaquin really let it rip,” says producer JoAnne Sellar. “It summed up so much about Freddie being this trussed-up animal.”

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Bradley Cooper

'Silver Linings Playbook'

After meeting an intriguing young woman, Cooper’s Pat Jr. has a bipolar episode, growing frantic and getting physical with his parents. “He’s amazing in it,” says producer Donna Gigliotti. “It’s immensely powerful.”

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Daniel Day-Lewis


Abraham Lincoln demands his Cabinet members find the votes to pass the 13th Amendment. “Now, now, now,” he commands. “In that moment, you see not only the measure of a great leader, you see Lincoln. The actor has disappeared,” says Times film critic Betsy Sharkey. (Watch the trailer.)

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Lead actress

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Jessica Chastain

'Zero Dark Thirty'

Reserved CIA targeter Maya explodes at her station chief who is not supporting her. “Physically shaking, screaming, crying, threatening … we are from then on completely in her shoes,” says film editor Dylan Tichenor.

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Jennifer Lawrence

'Silver Linings Playbook'

Having been set up as the fall-guy for the Philadelphia Eagles’ losses, Jennifer Lawrence “goes head-to-head with Robert De Niro.” It is, says producer Jonathan Gordon, “one of her many great moments.”

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Quvenzhané Wallis

'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

As a young girl from Louisiana’s hardscrabble bayous, Quvenzhané Wallis “destroys me” with the look on her face when she thinks she’s found her mother, says co-writer Lucy Alibar. “The sincerity and love and tenderness.”

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Naomi Watts

'The Impossible'

Battered and grievously wounded by the 2004 tsunami that swept over Thailand, Maria is ultimately saved by kind villagers. “There’s a moment where she’s getting dressed by this old Thai woman,” says director Juan Antonio Bayona. Watts was “completely destroyed in a sense.”

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Emmanuelle Riva


Felled by a stroke, Anne has lost the ability to speak and refuses to eat at her husband’s prompting. “She’s looking at him, her eyes saying so clearly, ‘You know well that I want to die.’ It’s not dialogue, only expressed by her eyes,” says producer Margaret Ménégoz. (Watch the trailer.)

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By Randee Dawn/ Photos by Times staff / Produced by Aaron Williams / Envelope writer Fred Schruers contributed to this article.