Acting can leave an instant impression when it is demonstrative. Watching Christian Bale in The Fighter (2010), American Hustle (2013) or Vice (2018), there's no doubt in our minds there's an actor underneath those dramatic weight losses and gains. Such radical transformations register because on-screen shapheshifters, like Bale, are using the physicality of their bodies as a medium of expression.
Then, there's the other kind: it's more restrained, more refined. So much is said with so little. We are not saying one's better than the other, but the latter often leaves a more lasting impression. Sweeping changes in appearance can call attention to itself and disrupt the illusion of acting. By contrast, when you can't see the wheels turning, we even forget there's an actor underneath. No overwhelming aura eclipses the craft. What better way to describe the art of Bale's co-star in the movies mentioned above: Amy Adams.
The many Amy Adams across her career
While Adams' work in these films may not be her most heralded, her reputation has been built as much on such supporting roles as lead turns. Strange dualities emerge on revisiting some of them. In many ways similar to her role as Mrs Dick Cheney in Vice is Peggy Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012). Wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult guru Lancaster Dodd, Peggy gives the impression she is in the passenger seat, when in reality, she is the one behind the wheel. Adams is Lady Macbeth pretending to be Desdemona. Hidden beneath her amiability is a ruthless determination. Manipulation occurs through voice modulation. Holding your own against Hoffman is no easy task " and Adams did it twice. Four years before The Master, she kept her end up against both Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Doubt (2008). Even her portrait of wide-eyed naivety retains a shred of some moral ambiguity.
Speaking of wide-eyed naivety, Adams' breakout role in Junebug (2005) was the perfect embodiment of it. In Phil Morrison's indie-flavoured Meet The Parents (2000), Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and George (Alessandro Nivola) are a newly-wed city couple who come to stay with George's family in North Carolina. Adams plays George's sister-in-law Ashley Johnsten, a sweet-natured mother-to-be. Ashley's sunny disposition however veils doubts over her own marriage. That climax still breaks our hearts. Though Ashley is a supporting character, it is her presence which makes the movie.
Again, a duality emerges.
A lot of Adams' characters often feel absent even when physically present. At the same time, their presence is palpable even in absence.
Because there is a knowability and unknowability. For instance, in Her (2013), the spotlight is on Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly. But in the loneliness of Adams' Amy, there is a certain relatability but also a sense of mystery, which lures us in and makes us want to know more about her. It draws from her rare gift: to paint whole characters with all but a few brushstrokes.
Adams' desire to colour outside the lines somehow feels curbed by Burton's straightforward retelling of Margaret Keane's story in Big Eyes (2014). It's partly what prevents the film and her performance from being masterstrokes. It doesn't however prevent Adams from painting a picture of a patriarchy built on men taking credit for women's achievements. Two years later came the role which may come to define her career. As a linguistics professor hired to communicate with extra-terrestrials, she becomes the anchor and beating heart of Arrival (2016). In their interactions is also the essence of what acting is: a culmination of performative skills that communicate ideas and intentions in a precise manner. Personifying the pain and fear of the story, Adams turns even the quietest moments of reflection into poignant ones. Such an immensely rewarding performance in an immensely rewatchable film, she pulls us into her journey on each rewatch. even though we know the destination is bittersweet.
On the other end of the spectrum is the movie which made her a star. Pulling a Julie Andrews in Enchanted (2007), she sang and danced her way into Hollywood's four-quadrant hearts in a Disney fairy tale relocated to modern-day New York. Talk about range.
Which brings us to the rare missteps in her resume, like Zack Snyder's Lois Lane and the role in her last film, Hillbilly Elegy (2020). As the drug-addicted Bev Vance, Adams did a full 180 in a loud and highlighted-in-bold performance. Nursing an alcohol addiction in HBO's Sharp Objects, she had left us on pins and needles with a performance of quiet bravura. Camille Preaker was exactly the kind of character that made her one of the most vaunted and versatile actors of our generation, making her caricaturish choices in Hillbilly Elegy all the more shocking.
Adams' new film The Woman in the Window has suffered numerous delays due to the pandemic and re-shoots. Usually, reshoots are Hollywood-speak for disaster-in-waiting. But simply for Adams' sake, we'll hold off on making premature calls, and expect a masterclass instead.
The Woman in the Window is streaming on Netflix.