Though he has yet to be nominated for a major award for his supporting performance in “Call Me By Your Name,” veteran actor Michael Stuhlbarg remains a strong contender for an Academy Award nomination. And if he gets it, it will be because of one scene, one speech. If you’ve seen Luca Guadagnino’s powerful coming-of-age drama about a teenager and his first gay lover set against the lush Tuscan landscape, you’ll know the scene I am talking about.
For most of the movie, Stuhlbarg’s character, the teenager’s father, is essentially a fellow in a family snapshot. He’s there to the left or right of the central characters, and then, in a sublimely delivered speech, he brings the movie to the core of its truth. It is a supporting performance in the truest sense; it underscores the performances of the two leads, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, without taking away from them.
In the vast majority of cases, the supporting nominations go to the performances that stand out overall, or in way too many instances, to lead actors relegated by their producers to the supporting category to enhance their chances (and diminish the chances of actual supporting performances). That seems to be happening this year by the split promotions of Chalamet and Hammer in the two categories when they certainly appear to be co-leads.
Hammer could siphon votes away, but If Stuhlbarg does get the nomination, he will join one of the rarest of Oscar clubs — actors nominated on the strength of a single scene, even a single speech. Remembering those scenes is like remembering where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon (I was in a bar cheering along with everyone else) or when Donald Trump was sworn in as president (I was in a bar crying in my beer).
Here are some of those club members and their scenes:
Cuba Gooding Jr. had more than one scene in “Jerry Maguire,” but the one that popped off the screen and landed him at the podium of the 69th Academy Awards was his shouted three-minute, 47-second “Show me the money!” speech over the telephone to Tom Cruise’s title character on the other end of the line.
Beatrice Straight took up less than six minutes of screen time in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 “Network,” the shortest of any Oscar nominee, but it was her two-and-a-half minute tour de force of rage over her husband’s confessed infidelity that won her the award.
Ned Beatty was another beneficiary of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant dialogue for “Network.” Playing the head of a television network, Beatty gives a scalding five-minute speech to his rogue anchorman Lewis (“I’m mad as hell”) Beale. His cynical schooling on the realities of capitalism was a gut punch to audience members sympathetic to the crazed newsman, for whom capitalism was one of the things he was mad as hell about.
Al Pacino, playing one of the many colorful hoods at odds with comic strip cop “Dick Tracy,” had an indelibly funny, and nomination worthy, scene as hunchback Big Boy Caprice teaching Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney and her chorus how to sing and dance.
Tom Cruise, who got a Best Actor nomination for his badgered sports agent in “Jerry Maguire,” also got a supporting actor nomination for 1999’s “Magnolia,” playing a motivational speaker who pops out a couple of veins while giving a two-and-a-minute speech for men paying him for tips on how to pick up women.
Viola Davis earned her first Oscar nomination for the 2009 “Doubt,” playing a woman torn between protecting her son from an abusive father at home or an abusive priest at school with no other option. All this is expressed in one scene between Davis and Meryl Streep, as the school principal investigating the priest. Davis is a master scene stealer, witness her backyard rage against her philandering husband in last year’s “Fences,” for which she won the supporting actress Oscar.
Jack Nicholson was a relatively unknown actor working in low-budget indie films when audiences at the Cannes Film Festival were treated to his brief, career-making performance as an alcoholic lawyer in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 “Easy Rider.” The scene that hooked that audience, and Oscar voters later, was one where he takes a shot of whiskey (“Yaaaah, nick-nick-nick, fft, fft, fft!”) and decides to join the film’s two motorcycle hippies on a run to New Orleans. Nicholson told me in an interview years later that when he walked out of that first screening in Cannes, “I knew I was a movie star.”
Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.