Is Amy Adams the New Thelma Ritter?

A look at the four-time Oscar nominee's near-constant presence on Oscar's radar in the past few years...

The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-14 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-11-09 (General release)

During an eight-year span, Amy Adams went from being an unknown, to becoming one of the top eight actresses nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (meaning they have been nominated four or more times). Looking back at her relatively short career (her first starring role was in the cult comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous in 1999) Adams’ rise is especially significant because it’s rare to see actors become so prominent with what seems to be a lack of interest in being the main star.

The actress has headlined a handful of movies, none of which have been especially memorable (Leap Year was downright forgettable) but it’s never been for her lack of trying; Adams always seems to have a ready disposition, the kind that reminds one of a young Julie Andrews or Doris Day. Adams’ wholesome qualities -- that button nose is too cute for words -- first convinced us of her talent in Junebug, a small independent movie where she surprised audiences by playing a pregnant woman with a penchant for meerkats and naivete. If the movie seems to punish her wholesomeness, Adams sees beyond the limitations of the screenplay and turns in a performance for the ages. Her Ashley is the one thing you remember long after the movie’s over.

The actress rightfully earned her first Academy Award nomination for this part and she went into the ceremony having won the Critics Choice Award as well as the prestigious National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress. She is one of three actresses who’s won this award more than once (the other two being Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest). That year Amy lost to juggernaut Rachel Weisz whose performance in The Constant Gardener had won almost all the precursors.

Shortly after this the actress got her first starring role in the Disney movie Enchanted, a charming, if uneven, mixed media extravaganza that has Adams play a cartoon princess come to life. The film sounded promising on paper but its need to prove the advantages of “real life” over fantasy failed to make it the classic it should’ve been. Adams however remains spectacular throughout the entire movie, her conviction to her character is such that it’s safe to say that she was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar nomination (and perhaps even the win).

When Adams was cast to play the part of the saintly Sister James in the movie adaptation of Doubt it made sense in that “oh she’s perfect for that” way, but it was also a given that the supporting turn of the show belonged to Mrs. Muller who was played by Viola Davis. Before the movie was even released pundits were betting their money on Davis, but then Amy started showing up in almost every lineup, competing against her co-star.

She received Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards for her performance, which led to her earning a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The nominations shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering both roles earned Tony nominations for the actresses who played them. That time, critics and audiences in general saw Sister James as an extension of Adams’ persona: sweet, innocent, ready to be corrupted...because of this, most assumed it was an easy part to play and failed to see how truly different Adams was from Sister James and Ashley. In Junebug, she seemed eager to care, learn and love, in Doubt she is always alert. Her scenes with Meryl Streep’s diabolical sister play out less like a battle of good vs. evil and more like good trying to decipher the root of evil. That year both she and Davis lost the Oscar to the formidable Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

The actress followed this with a series of forgettable pictures including a romantic lead in Leap Year and a co-lead in Julie and Julia where of course Meryl Streep earned all the praise. The latter saw her display a new range of emotions which she had been denied in previous roles. For starters it gave her a sexual persona - even pregnant Ashley seemed virginal -- and it also tried to make her dislikable.

Adams followed this with what turned out to be her most surprising role to date. Having been allowed to be sexual onscreen gave her all the tools she needed to play Charlene Fleming, the Adrian to Mark Wahlberg’s Rocky in The Fighter. Before this movie, Adams had never displayed any sort of aggressivity onscreen, so it was a true surprise to see her become so “out there” for this part. She delivered a sensational performance, providing the movie with comedic relief, some of its most memorable one liners and embodying the now iconic tag of “MTV girl”. She cursed, she had sex, she fought...all of these without seeming like she was trying too hard. The performance earned countless award nominations including BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and a third Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She was defeated in most races by her co-star Melissa Leo.

When she was cast in P.T. Anderson’s The Master, people instantly assumed she would earn another Oscar nomination -- perhaps even the win -- for what until then sounded like the ultimate role for the actress. Anderson’s movie remained wrapped in mystery until the time of its release; time by which people’s expectations had become so bloated, that once they saw the actual movie they didn’t know what to do of it. The film has resulted in controversy because of its extreme cerebral qualities. Anderson’s flawed masterpiece has become an easy target for accusations of pretentiousness, style over substance and “the emperor has no clothes”, winning haters whose major issue is the film’s impenetrability.

Adams, and her co-stars, were thought to be awards has-beens once awards season started -- who would want to nominate this intellectual mess? -- but they surprised the public when their names started appearing everywhere. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance was always thought to be a sure fire nominee (the man after all was even nominated for Charlie Wilson’s War where he also co-starred with Adams) but the actress was less of a sure thing. She received nominations for the BAFTA, Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globe, failing only to earn a SAG nomination. More important, she became a critics’ darling earning accolades from the National Society of Film Critics (inarguably the most fascinating critics’ association) and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, where upon receiving her award she joked “those who know me, know this is the character closest to my heart”.

She was rightfully nominated for the Academy Award, allowing her to join the ranks of Geraldine Page, Lee Grant, Maggie Smith, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, and Ethel Barrymore as one of the women most nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar. What’s interesting about her nomination is how people have failed to see the diversity of each of her nominated performances. In The Master Adams seems to be on her usual path, playing a pregnant wife but the truth is for the first time she plays a truly soulless creature who will stop at nothing in order to preserve the life she earned. She’s perhaps the film’s most enigmatic figure and months after its release, the movie has started to become part of the discussion as critics reevaluate its power roles and wonder if it isn’t Adam’s Peggy Dodd who is the true “master” the film speaks of.

The movie might be the first, since Elia Kazan’s iconic A Streetcar Named Desire where three actors from the same movie have been nominated for displaying very different acting techniques. While Joaquin Phoenix gives himself away to pure method acting, Hoffman relies on a more naturalistic approach, leaving Adams to embody that classic Hollywood screen acting she’s mastered so well. We never see Peggy’s actions coming. She hits us like a cold wave and ultimately becomes the most haunting presence in an already pervasive film.

Adams will probably lose once again -- this time to yet another upcoming juggernaut in the shape of Anne Hathaway - but her achievements can’t be denied, in the light of how short it has taken her to reach this far, and especially because she is still somehow very much underrated. Upon receiving this fourth nomination, internet dissenters accused her of being a new Marsha Mason (look her up, watch her one note performances and dare to say Adams is the same...) when the truth is she’s on her way to becoming something more of a subdued Page. It’s true, the actress has her limitations, most due to her soft voice and lovely features, but she is always ready to tackle a part people never expected of her and more surprising than that, she always pulls it off.

There is a very much discussed scene in The Master where she takes on the role of dominator when it comes to sex with her husband. Watch Adams’ determination closely and for a second stop and think if you can see Sister James, Ashley or Charlene in this performance. Truly ask yourself if Adams is as dull of an actress as bloggers would make you think. The magic of Adams’ work is ultimately that once you see her, you can never unsee her or imagine any other actress playing her characters.

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