What’s Oscar’s (Sort of) Problem with Amy Adams?
Here’s what she needs to do to finally be more than a contender.
Despite their shared initials, Amy Adams and the Academy Awards have an awkward relationship. Sure, it’s an honor just to be nominated, but after several unsuccessful rounds, even the most gracious loser must start to feel slighted when, once again, the Oscar goes to … someone else.
The 44-year-old actress has been nominated six years out of the last 13 (five times for Best Supporting Actress, once for Best Actress), and still, she’s scored no wins. Her perennial also-ran status has led many an Oscar-obsessed fan to put her right up there with Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sigourney Weaver as one of the active actresses most overdue for an Oscar win. Among female thespians, only Close, Deborah Kerr, and Thelma Ritter have been fruitlessly nominated as many times as Adams (Kerr and Ritter) or more (Close).
This year, she’s in the running once more for her supporting role as former Second Lady Lynne Cheney in Vice, and it looks like she’ll be going home without a little naked gold man to call her own, as usual.
Is it the Academy or is it Adams? I’d say it’s a little bit of both. Clearly Oscar voters love her, but only up to a point … which tends to be the day the nominations are announced. In all six of her entries in the Oscar race, she’s never been a frontrunner. She’s never even been one of the two most likely to cross the finish line to the winner’s podium. (Adams has a better track record with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gave her back-to-back Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy Golden Globes for American Hustle and Big Eyes in 2014 and 2015.)
This year, Best Supporting Actress feels like a horse race between If Beale Street Could Talk’s Regina King, the critics darling who took the Golden Globe, and The Favourite’s Rachel Weisz, who walked away with the BAFTA. If there’s an unexpected twist on February 24, I’m placing my bet on Roma mom Marina de Tavira to pull the upset card a la 2001’s last-minute contender and ultimate champ Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock.
Interestingly, Adams is an Oscar contender for the sixth time in the same year that seven-time nominee Glenn Close looks set to finally win for her leading role in The Wife. “Overdue” status aside, Close is in a different Oscar league. On at least two previous occasions, she felt like a legitimate threat to win.
She lost her Fatal Attraction Best Actress bid to Cher for Moonstruck at the 1988 ceremony, and her devious-in-a-different-way turn the following year in Dangerous Liaisons (up to now, arguably her best shot at the gold) couldn’t outmaneuver Jodie Foster in The Accused for Best Actress. Still, Close was the highlight of both of those movies and the performer who put them both on the classics map.
Adams, though, has never really been close-but-no-cigar. Aside from her first nomination, Best Supporting Actress for Junebug in 2006, she’s never been the undisputed standout nominee for any of her films (Junebug was also the only time she’s ever been the only acting nominee from one of her films), the reason why people will be talking about them, if they’re still talking about them, years later.
When people think about Doubt, The Fighter, and The Master today, is Adams the first actor who comes to mind? Maybe for some, but she doesn’t dominate any of those movies. One could say that for her second to fourth Oscar nominations, Adams rode a wave of goodwill for the films. Those Best Supporting Actress nominations, like Minnie Driver’s for Good Will Hunting and Jackie Weaver’s for Silver Linings Playbook, were more about the films, which logged a combined 15 nominations, than a peerless turn by Adams.
Her role in Doubt, one that was on the cusp of leading, was completely overshadowed by that of her costar and fellow Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis, whose single scene launched her upward career trajectory. Two years later, Adams had to smile like she meant it as her The Fighter costar Melissa Leo took the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that Adams never had a chance of winning.
I, for one, thought Adams was particularly effective in Doubt — and I say that as someone who has been impressed by all of her work, even her lesser turns in Her and Nocturnal Animals — but I’ll never forget the words of a movie critic friend who countered my rave by saying, “She’s good, but she doesn’t own the role. I can imagine a number of different actresses in it.”
I gave Adams more credit than that, but I think the issue was less her level of ownership than that her costars in Doubt (Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Viola Davis, all Oscar-nominated) had stronger acting showcases. At least three out of five of her Best Supporting Actress nods were for playing characters who were upstaged by bigger and broader ones.
At least three out of five of her Best Supporting Actress nods were for playing characters who were upstaged by bigger and broader ones.
Even her surprise Best Actress nomination for her centerpiece role in American Hustle made her that year’s Yalitza Aparicio (this year’s dark horse Best Actress contender for Roma), the nominee everybody didn’t see coming. Being up against Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, Adams didn’t have a serious shot at the gold, and as one of four acting nominees from American Hustle, she had to share the best-in-show praise. (Her performance is, however, my personal favorite in the film.)
None of this is to diminish Adams’s thespian prowess. She’s clearly a true, Oscar-caliber talent. Ironically, though, she’s often been saddled with thankless roles as the wife or the girlfriend. The two times she’s been the main attraction in major critical and commercial hits—2007's Enchanted and 2016's Arrival — she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.
If Oscars are as important as some actors claim they aren’t, what does Adams have to do to finally get hers? I’d say she needs to step away from ensemble pieces that are ultimately someone else’s show. She’s great in Vice, and the Lady Macbeth-ian role of Lynne Cheney gives her some juicy moments, but, ultimately, that movie is all about Christian Bale as former U.S. Veep Dick Cheney and the actor’s miraculous transformation and uncanny impersonation.
Adams needs to nail a role in a movie that is, first and foremost, a showcase for her, like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Glenn Close in The Wife. My advice to her would be to go gritty and indie, like she did in Junebug, the movie that made Oscar notice her the first time. (She lost that year to her 2019 competition, Rachel Weisz, who took the 2005 gong for The Constant Gardener.) Then the buzz can start at Sundance and build from there.
As long as Adams continues to play second and third banana to male costars — this is her third nomination in a movie for which Christian Bale was also nominated, and she’s previously been multiply nominated alongside Phillip Seymour Hoffman — she’ll likely continue to be one rung or more below the bridesmaid.
If a belated Oscar win can possibly, potentially happen for Close at 71, it can happen for Adams, too. But unlike Joan Castleman in The Wife (or Lynne Cheney, for that matter), Adams might have to make her power play without a man to drag her down.