Actors are Oscar-nominated for their entire performances. But sometimes all it takes is that one galvanizing scene to secure victory. Think Gregory Peck as a defeated Atticus Finch, leaving the courtroom as a gallery of black observers stands in his honor in To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of the five nominees up for a supporting-actor Academy Award on Feb. 24 has his own magic moment on-screen. USA TODAY's Susan Wloszczyna provides a close-up of their trophy-worthy scenes.
Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel in Argo
The role: Veteran movie producer Siegel is at the lifetime-achievement stage of his career when CIA agent Tony Mendez comes calling. He's looking for a Hollywood insider to help him pull off the ruse of making a faux Star Wars ripoff titled Argo as a cover for a rescue operation during the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. He couldn't have found a better con man than Siegel, who relishes the chance to pull a fast one on a town not known for integrity while being part of a heroic effort for his country.
The moment: Arkin lends much-needed humor to the tense thriller and obviously has witnessed a fair share of showbiz wheeling and dealing firsthand. When Mendez (Ben Affleck) finds the perfect space-fantasy script, Siegel must secure the material at the right price. They meet with producer Max Klein (Richard Kind), who claims that MGM is "screaming for sci-fi" and offering four times as much money. Not so fast, Siegel says. Seems pal Warren Beatty told him over a mai tai at Trader Vic's that MGM pulled the plug on a similar film, Zulu Empire, because "the Zulu extras want to unionize." Hence, Argo is a no-go for MGM. After they seal the deal, Mendez asks if he really knows Beatty. Siegel answers: "Yes, I do. I once took a leak next to him at the Golden Globes."
Robert De Niro as Patrizio Solatano in Silver Linings Playbook
The role: Pat Sr. is a sports bookie whose obsessive-compulsive behavior exhibits itself mainly in game-day superstitions, which include having the three TV remotes lying on a table just so. While he cares deeply about the health of grown son Pat, who suffers from bipolar disorder, he also tries to guilt him into hanging around and being a good-luck charm whenever his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play.
The moment: Flying off the handle is de rigueur for De Niro. But this time, the actor adds a lining of vulnerability to his patriarch's frustrated attempts to get closer to his son while dealing with his own antisocial issues. All it takes to awaken his inner Jake LaMotta is a clueless teen neighbor who keeps showing up at the family's home to interview the young Pat (Bradley Cooper) about his mental condition for a school project. A fed-up, pajama-wearing De Niro chases the interloper back home with an f-word-laced tirade: "I'll take the (bleep)ing camera and break it over your (bleep)ing head, and then I'll come back and interview you about what it feels like to get that (bleep)ing camera broken over your head."
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master
The role: As the charismatic leader of a semi-religious cult known as The Cause, Dodd is a self-made man in post-World War II America whose Scientology-style theories encourage his flock to rise to a higher state of being. As much prophet as he is carnival barker, he finds his perfect test case in an aimless drifter named Freddie Quell, a barely evolved specimen of manhood who acts as a mirror image of Dodd's own imperfections and conflicts when it comes to controlling destructive urges.
The moment: Hoffman reveals yet again why he is one of Hollywood's greatest chameleons. He instantly commands the screen as Dodd, whether entertaining his followers with a jaunty song or sadistically putting Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie through grueling drills. But it is when Dodd's weaknesses come to the fore that Hoffman is his most riveting. That is never more true than when a skeptic at a social gathering dares to pick apart his beliefs. Dodd, who has described himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher," at first claims to welcome such criticism, stating, "For without it, we would be positives with no negatives - therefore zero charge." But soon he becomes enraged, reduced to hurling insults and ugly name-calling.
Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln
The role: Don't let the unfortunate wig and limp fool you. Stevens was a radical Republican, staunch abolitionist and one of the most powerful members of Congress in 1865, known for his slashing way with words against political foes. As depicted in Lincoln, he is willing to compromise his language but not his beliefs to support the president's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
The moment: Jones' own curmudgeonly reputation is a perfect fit for Stevens, who comes prepared for ideological warfare when he is first seen debating the slavery issue in the House. Brazenly interrupting his main Democratic rival in speechifying rhetoric, Confederacy sympathizer Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), Stevens counters with this killer opening volley: "Some of us breathe oxygen, and we find the mephitic fumes of his oratory a lethal challenge to our pleural capacities." Each ensuing occasion that requires him to speak in public offers similar entertaining bouts of verbal bluster.
Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained
The role: The man who unchains Django is a dapper German dentist turned bounty hunter who searches the pre-Civil War South for wanted criminals with a price on their heads. He wreaks havoc with the local customs and puts his own life at risk by daring to treat slaves on equal terms. But his florid Teutonic-infused language, exquisite Old World manners and quaint horse-drawn cart, which is topped by a large molar bouncing on a spring, usually disarm his prey long enough so he can easily dispatch them with his gun.
The moment: Waltz dexterously dances his way to a nomination the minute he opens his mouth in the opening sequence. Relying on his eccentric speech and a deadly aim, Schultz tries to persuade a pair of white brothers traveling with several newly acquired slaves to sell Django (Jamie Foxx) so he can assist with his bounty work. When he tells one of the ornery brutes, "I wish to parley with you," he is harshly commanded, "Speak English!" An apologetic Schultz replies, "Please forgive me, it is a second language. Amongst your inventory, I've been led to believe, is a specimen I am keen to acquire." Acquire he does, though not before killing one sibling, causing the other to be crushed under a horse and freeing the other slaves.