Finding the right moment of a performance matters

What, exactly, does it take for an actor to get noticed these days?

For awards purposes, someone who has a Howard Beale-like onscreen meltdown can generate tons of publicity in a crowded field. Daniel Day-Lewis probably wouldn’t select the “I drink your milkshake” monologue from “There Will Be Blood” as his finest moment in the film, but the clip became a vital marketing tool that piqued voters’ interest — assuming they weren’t onboard already.

A character doesn’t need to shout out a window or dress down an archenemy to garner attention, but certainly these types of moments are now what many will associate with those Oscar-winning performances.

There are others, of course. Al Pacino’s courtroom theatrics in the final moments of “Scent of a Woman,” Forest Whitaker galvanizing the Ugandan people in an uplifting roadside address in “The Last King of Scotland” and a jailed Anthony Hopkins sizing up a frightened Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” are just a few scenes that aired on every commercial, clip package, talkshow appearance and awards show in those respective years.

Among the clips to be shown dozens of times this year include Meryl Streep’s confrontation with Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt,” Angelina Jolie’s “That’s not my son” speech in “Changeling” and Sean Penn addressing the masses in “Milk.”

Yet sometimes those single moments that capture the essence of a performance can be tough to find. It’s the studio’s job to present scenes that will make voters take notice.

“The goal is come up with clips to show the quality of the performance, to pick out moments that show range,” says Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker. “In some films, that’s very difficult to do. Sometimes the performance is part of the entire film.”

Barker has a handful of leading actresses this year vying for awards attention, including Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married,” Kristin Scott Thomas in “I’ve Loved You So Long” and Melissa Leo in “Frozen River.” For the latter, it may be difficult to find a breakout scene that screams attention. The well-reviewed film is very subtle and without hysterics, and Leo’s performance is an extension of that.

The same could be said of Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor.” His character, a college professor who befriends a young couple living illegally in the United States, isn’t one to raise his voice or become highly agitated. So does that make it hard for him to break through a crowded lead actor field?

“Yeah, probably,” says “Visitor” writer-director Tom McCarthy. “I wish I could give a more positive answer.”

Yet, on the other side of the argument, McCarthy says Jenkins’ career as a longtime character actor has earned him so much respect in the acting community that he doesn’t need a particular scene to get noticed by the actors branch of the Academy.

“People have responded to him, partly because it’s Richard’s first time in a lead role,” McCarthy explains. “The journey is what it’s about for this character.”

For “The Secret Life of Bees,” Gina Prince-Bythewood directs Dakota Fanning during an emotional scene where the young actress is throwing glass jars of honey against a wall, trying to relieve pent-up aggression.

Though awards were the furthest from Prince-Bythewood’s mind while writing and directing the scene, she fully realized the moment would be a linchpin in both how the character and movie would be assessed.

“As I’m writing, I know what the big set pieces are going to be,” she says. “The scariest thing as a director is fighting with myself as a writer. Can my director side deliver what I wrote?

“You want to work with actors who can elevate the material. You can see the performances in your head, too, but to see it come to life is a great moment.”

Sometimes, a scene that screams “notice me” doesn’t have to be loud or unwieldy. Maybe it’s just the gravitas of the actor who can make voters take notice.

For instance, Dustin Hoffman does no more than raise a champagne glass in “Last Chance Harvey” in giving his daughter a wedding toast, but it’s Hoffman’s legacy that makes the scene explode.

“I don’t want to speak out of turn, but he brings a lot to it,” says “Harvey” writer-helmer Joel Hopkins. “That was Dustin, hands down, who made that scene. He had been worrying a lot about it, and I told him, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ He ended up using elements of my speech but brought his own thing to it.”

Barker suggests that the power of a breakout scene aired on a commercial or trailer isn’t so much to put that particular actor on voters’ radar, but to have the scene be compelling enough to make voters want to see the film.

“It’s no more complicated than that,” Barker says. “You want them to see films worthy of consideration. That’s not an easy thing to do with so many movies.”

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