Eight One-Scene Wonders Who Achieved Oscars Glory
Sometimes, the Academy hands out statues based on the strength of performances over a full film. Other times, just one scene is enough.
When it comes to nominating performers, Academy members seem to use different rules for different actors. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren have lifetime passes and could get nominated for sneezing in a foreign accent or a hoop skirt. Other actors — like the eternally bypassed Steve Buscemi, Mia Farrow, and Donald Sutherland — seemingly couldn’t curry Oscar’s favour if they cured cancer in between film takes. Thankfully, every now and then somebody like bawdy comedienne Mo’Nique wins an Oscar for Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire (2009) and proves, as she stated in her glorious Oscar speech, that sometimes it can be about “the performance and not the politics”.
Some performances, like Mo’Nique’s or Charlize Theron’s in Monster (2003) or Robert DeNiro’s in Raging Bull (1980), are impossible to ignore, and actors and actresses are given statues for their incredible work over the entire film’s runtime. Other performances, like Helena Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech (2010) or Matthew McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), are seemingly nominated because the stars are nice people and good enough in a film that the Academy clearly loves. But then there are some performances that garner recognition on the strength of a single moment, one lone scene that makes people sit up and never forget it. These one-scene wonders have done excellent work before and since, but when it comes to Oscar, sometimes one moment in the sun is all you need.
Beatrice Straight in Network (1976)
The standard-bearer for this phenomenon is the late Beatrice Straight in Network. The then 62-year-old is famous for having delivered the shortest ever Oscar-winning performance, clocking in at a mere five minutes-and-42 seconds of screen time in the classic TV news drama (her Oscar speech was nearly as long). It all pivots, of course, around the scene in which news honcho Max (played by William Holden) admits his infidelity, and his wife unleashes a loud, defiant monologue. Better than Piper Laurie in Carrie or Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver? Nah, but put upon long-suffering wives are an Oscar favourite.
Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)
Unlike Beatrice Straight, Viola Davis did not win for her incredible performance in the Catholic abuse drama Doubt, losing to Penelope Cruz for Vicki Cristina Barcelona. Still, she only had one scene in the film, and somehow managed ‘best in show’ honours alongside fellow nominees Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. As Eva Marie Saint said when presenting the Best Supporting Actress category at the Academy Awards in 2010, “In rare instances, an actress makes such an impression in only a few brief scenes that the energy of her work carries her all the way to a seat… on Oscar night.” Ain’t that the truth!
Jason Robards in Melvin And Howard (1980)
Two-time Oscar winner Robards got to play eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes long before Leonardo DiCaprio. But unlike The Aviator (2004), in Melvin And Howard he’s relegated to the film’s opening scene in a long one-on-one conversation with star Paul Le Mat. The ‘sorta based on a true story’ gimmick allows Robards to hit all the buttons one would expect from a character as wild as Hughes, even though it’s limited to only one scene. He lost the statue to Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People.
Ruby Dee in American Gangster (2007)
It’s hard to imagine anybody considering Ridley Scott’s American Gangster as particularly unique enough to be memorable, but with only a few brief minutes of screen time, the iconic Ruby Dee gave it a reason to be endlessly revisited. The actress who gave performances in culturally significant works such as A Raisin In The Sun (1961), Roots (1979), and Do The Right Thing (1989) earned her first Oscar nomination at age 85 for slapping Denzel Washington in the film’s dramatic climax, and being amazing at it.
Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire (1996)
Quick. Name a scene that isn’t the “Show me the money!” scene from Jerry Maguire? (Okay, sure, “You had me at hello.” But other than that?). The boisterous, energetic scene became quotable for a reason, and is always the film’s first search auto-fill response. Cruise and Gooding were serviceable throughout the rest of the film, but it’s hard to imagine anybody considering their work all that Oscar worthy without that one memorable scene.
Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)
Let’s get this (ahem) straight: Jaye Davidson is excellent in The Crying Game and was entirely deserving of his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. However, is there anybody who would deny that this British model with no prior acting experience would have found himself at the Academy Awards if not for his being front-and-centre of one of the biggest cinematic twists in history? Unlikely. The incredible Irish thriller was a huge hit thanks to its whisper campaign asking audiences not to reveal the big secret (NSFW clip below). The Oscars went and did it anyway, but at least Mercedes Ruehl had fun with it.
Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)
As a die-hard Kidmaniac (yes, we have a name!), I am required to say that, quite rightfully, ‘Our Nicole’ is fantastic throughout all of Stephen Daldry’s fabulous adaptation of The Hours. However, I’m also not blind and it all comes down to the train station scene where all of Virginia Woolf’s problems and fears are laid out. Denzel Washington, on announcing her Best Actress win at the Oscars, joked “by a nose”, but it was really by a train platform.
Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables (2012)
It was always going to come down to ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ for whoever was cast as Fantine in Les Misérables. Much like other musical Oscar recipients Jennifer Hudson singing ‘I Am Telling You’ in Dreamgirls (2006) and Rita Moreno performing ‘America’ in West Side Story (1960), a musical’s signature song can make or break a performance. Hathaway succeeded in that, but then proceeded to not-so-humbly accept every award under the sun and turn people into full on Hathahaters.
Hathaway will be presenting a statue on Monday, most likely to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, but possibly even BAFTA-winning Somali actor Barkhad Abdi, whose (improvised!) line in Captain Phillips — “I’m the captain now!” — could have been another entry on this list. A meeting of one-scene wonders; wouldn’t that be beautiful.
The 86th Academy Awards will be held on March 2 US time, screening Monday March 3 in Australia.
Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.