Amy Adams: Top Five Performances

As everyone probably knows, it’s Amy Adams’ birthday today. This makes today an International Holiday because one of the greatest women and actresses ever to exist was born forty-five years ago today. So I want to celebrate her by talking about my five favourite performances of hers, across film and TV, and why I think she’s so genuinely amazing. Most everyone loves her, but if you haven’t seen a lot of her work for whatever reason, you’ll glean enough from this list just from the sheer range of her characters. She can do anything, and I don’t put that lightly. 

I tried my best to rank them, but it gets hard when you’re dealing with someone of such an extraordinary calibre of talent. It was hard to narrow it down to just 5, so I’ve included a little honourable mention to ease into the actual list. 

Honourable Mention: Charlene Fleming in The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell 

The Fighter is a movie that I really liked when I first saw it, then cooled on significantly upon revisiting it. I think the premise is neat, the cast is excellent, but it’s let down by its wandering script and a resonant lack of finesse in its directing. Amy Adams plays Charlene Fleming, a bartender who ends up dating Mark Wahlberg’s character, the titular ‘fighter’ of the movie. The movie does something of a disservice to Charlene, not really giving her any sort of fleshed-out character, but Adams brings a life of her own to the character, playing the sassy woman with enough vigour to face down just about anything she’s confronted. She provides a grounding for Micky (Wahlberg) that imbues his character with conflict to face down his family, and Adams’ snark and ferocity is enough to leave a lasting impression when she’s threatening to rip out people’s wigs. It’s truly remarkable. 

But Charlene wasn’t enough to land in the top five. So without further ado (believe I tried everything to make a pun about Adams and ado but nothing stuck), let’s jump into the Top Five. 

#5: Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals (2016) dir. Tom Ford

In Tom Ford’s sophomore effort, Nocturnal Animals, Adams plays Susan Morrow, a woman who is confronted with her dramatic past when her ex-husband sends her a copy of his latest manuscript, which is a thinly disguised reaction to the downfall of their marriage, a large portion of which was caused by Susan. Adams has one hell of a task on her hands here. She has to spend most of her time on-screen reacting to the events we see when she’s not around. She’s witnessing the same things as the audience for the first time, and her reactions often trigger flashbacks and memories of her time with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Adams doesn’t have lots of dialogue or meaty dramatic work for a big portion of this movie, but she makes the most of every single second that she’s on screen. Her eyes, mouth, and hands do a lot of acting here. Her lips quiver as she digests information, which reveals things about her marriage that she hadn’t previously considered but from Edward’s perspective. Her tired eyes buzzing as she remains unable to fall asleep, tales of her mistakes swimming around in her brain. You can see Susan’s thought-process without her even having to say a word, and that’s the beauty of Adams’ talent. She can say a whole monologue with just her facial expressions and it’s damn impressive that she’s able to anchor a movie that jumps around as much as this one does. 

Notable Scene: Flashback with Edward on the street.

#4: Camille Preaker in Sharp Objects (2018) dir. Jean Marc-Vallee (HBO)

Sharp Objects is one of Amy Adams’ trickiest roles, and it’s also one of her best. Camille Preaker is a talented journalist who must revisit her hometown to report on a story, and with it she faces her darkest traumas and new secrets which she must unravel whilst keeping herself intact. It’s a largely complex character and it’s no mean feat for an actor, which means that Adams was perfect for it. We had not previously seen her do anything of this ilk before in her career, though nobody doubted she was capable. Tapping into darkness and trauma is a playground for an actor, but Adams deeply involves herself, gets under Camille’s skin, and you can really see the empathy and understanding in her performance. Playing brilliantly off her co-stars, notably Eliza Scanlen and Patricia Clarkson, Adams becomes haunted as she visits locations from her childhood, and this is where the aforementioned non-verbal storytelling pays off. The editing and camerawork do good jobs at doing this too, but this show falls apart without Adams’ anchored, dedicated performance. She plays subtle, dramatic, even comedic at times, all wrapped up into one exquisite portrayal of a woman who is confronted with a lot of things she would have much rather left alone. You can see the weary expression in Adams’ expressive eyes, the toll of her experiences on her quivering lip, and the anguish of her trauma in her screams. It’s a masterful performance, some of the best on TV in recent memory. 

Notable Scene: Ah there are so many, but the dressing room scene always sticks out in my mind. 

Warning: Distressing material and spoilers ahead:

#3: Sydney Prosser in American Hustle (2013) dir. David O. Russell 

Ironically, American Hustle, as a film, suffers from the same problem that The Fighter did: I liked it a lot less upon rewatching it. I think the characters are interesting, the costume/production design/makeup is excellent, but yet again the script is the biggest problem. It feels like it doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. Amy Adams, however, knows exactly what she’s doing in this movie. Playing a myriad of different things in the same film, she takes on different accents, different demeanours, all the while holding things back from the audience, making herself seem like she’s always in control and always knowing more than she actually does. She’s smart, calculating, and devious, and knows how to get what she wants. She is often used by other characters to manipulate people, and plays double roles a lot more frequently. Adams has to balance a British accent, which is pretty great, with her vocal quality she uses for Sydney, and try to imbibe this complex character with some heart and grounding, which she manages to do, particularly in her later scenes with Christian Bale and some with Bradley Cooper. It’s quite a flashy role, but doesn’t seem as obviously brilliant or meaty as a lot of her other roles that didn’t make this list. I like this one a lot for the simple fact that she’s playing a range of different emotions and characteristics and she uses the camera so brilliantly to her advantage. Sydney makes a habit of using her physical beauty to entice men and get them to do what she wants them to, but Adams doesn’t let that define her characterisation. It’s genuinely excellent work, some of the best parts of a movie that’s got some good stuff going for it. I don’t quite know why it ranks higher than some more obviously impressive work like Sharp Objects, but this performance always reminds me that she can do anything and do it well. 

Notable scene: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything”

#2: Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve 

This is probably one of Adams’ most famous performances, and a lot of that reason is because she failed to garner an Oscar nomination for it, despite getting precursor nominations (and some wins) just about everything one would be expected to in order to be nominated. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture and got 10 nominations overall, yet nothing for its lead and its anchor, Amy Adams. If American Hustle better demonstrates her range, Arrival shows her presence as an actress. The opening provides such a foundation for her performance, giving her things to play off throughout the duration of the film. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory because Arrival is one movie that you do NOT want ruined for you, but I will say that this is one of the hardest things to pull off as an actor, the communication of information while the audience and the character ventures into the unknown. Adams plays scared, determined, resilient, confused, brave, disoriented, powerful, distraught, hopeful, and every other adjective under the sun. If a person can feel it, Adams plays it. She brings Louise Banks into a new dimension, one where she’s more than just her knowledge. She’s her experiences, she’s her tenacity, and Adams instills the role with an unmistakeable energy that renders this character so unique that I’m unable to imagine anyone else playing her. Her vocal quality is perfect for this role, breathy and light when she’s unfamiliar with her surroundings, then hardened and sharp when she’s adamant (pun kinda) to prove her point of view is correct. Backed up with a quick wit and vast intelligence, Louise runs the gamut of experience in this movie, and Amy Adams provides the perfect bridge between the film’s subject matter and the audience’s viewing experience. And there’s a moment where she’s woken from a restless sleep and her pinky finger is trembling as she uncomfortably opens her eyes, conveying everything she felt in one bodily movement. It’s just all so impressive, and I’m constantly in awe of her talent. And how she manages to stand out in a film packed full of brilliant, mind-bending moments is a testament to her abilities as an actress. 

Notable scene: So I can’t pick the one I want due to spoilers, so I’ll choose this one:

#1: Ashley Johnsten in Junebug (2005) dir. Phil Morrison 

There will be spoilers in this section so if you haven’t seen Junebug or don’t want it spoiled you should watch it and then come back and read this section!

God bless independent cinema. Yes, I know that most people would rate Arrival as her best performance, but her work in Junebug stands out to me above all the rest. And yes, perhaps it’s for that one scene alone, but even that would be justified. I’m not the biggest fan of the film itself, I think it’s somewhat too stilted for its own good, but Amy Adams is by far the best thing about it. Ashley Johnsten is full of life and energy, despite being heavily pregnant and going through a rough spot with her husband. It’s her firm belief that the birth of their baby will revive their crumbling marriage. There comes a point in the movie where Ashley’s baby is stillborn. And the scene of her in the hospital talking to George in the aftermath is such beautiful work that it almost makes me want to watch the whole film again just to see those moments. Luckily, some kind soul uploaded the scene to YouTube so I can witness a masterclass. You see, the thing for me that clinches this scene as pivotal is the dynamic of it. Ashley talks normally, breaks down, regains her composure and then starts to laugh, a bit of her jovial personality shining through the trauma, something that makes her character so likeable. Her emotions are in flux, she can’t stick to one topic of conversation and she’s all over the place after suffering through something truly horrible. Adams plays it so effortlessly, like it’s nothing. And it’s beautiful to witness as she traverses the spectrum of human emotion in six minutes. She goes from hysterical to contemplative without breaking a sweat, and it’s all extremely sincere and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. Ashley might seem naive and gullible, but she’s pure and honest and true and Adams uses her talent to show that in every moment she’s on screen, whether she’s bouncing around in glee or crying in a hospital bed, she has a pure spirit that feels in large part down to Adams herself, for me anyway as I wasn’t so sure of the film’s writing prowess. Her first Oscar nomination of many, but it’s still a performance that I think about more often than I would have thought given how lukewarm I was about the movie. Adams shines and she truly broke through into the industry with this role and boy am I glad that she did. 

Notable scene: THAT scene, of course, I’m not going to link it because it says the title in the YouTube video and I don’t want someone accidentally seeing a spoiler. But if you know the film, you know the scene.

Now that I’m actually compiling a list, I’m suddenly reminded of all of her brilliant performances. The Oscar nominees that didn’t make this list: Doubt, The Master, and Vice. The genre performance that defines a career in Enchanted. A wonderful supporting performance that had no right to be as good as it was in Her. The underseen beauties in Sunshine Cleaning, Big Eyes, and Julie & Julia. Thank you Amy Adams for all of these wonderful performances and for being one of the best actresses of the decade. 

Thanks for reading! I’ll probably rearrange this list in my head every day or whenever I watch a specific performance, but here it stands for now. Do you agree? Disagree? What would your Top 5’s be? Let me know in the comments or come talk about Amy Adams on Twitter @Jamie_Carrick_ I’m always happy to talk about legends! 

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