How Amy Adams became the most overlooked actress in Hollywood

If you tuned in via viral video to Amy Adams’ second stint hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend, you might have noticed something conspicuously missing: Amy Adams. Hollywood’s most supporting actress was largely overshadowed throughout the course of the evening, while SNL alums Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen made headlines for their surprise return to the stage. As if Lorne Michaels and his producers were concerned Adams’ appearance might not draw enough clicks, Wiig even dropped in on Adams’ opening monologue, to cheers and applause from the audience.

Amy Adams, of course, was a game team player and a good sport—because, at this point, she has to be used to it. Despite having earned five Oscar nominations in the decade since her breakout role in 2005’s Junebug, Adams has cemented her role as a Hollywood bridesmaid, routinely coming home empty-handed from the Academy Awards, while being eclipsed by her co-stars. Adams got stuck with the thankless role of Julie Powell in Julie and Julia, while Meryl Streep’s Julia Child charmed the pants off audiences. Her co-stars Christian Bale and Melissa Leo got Oscars for their roles in The Fighter, and all anyone could talk about after Man of Steel was Henry Cavill’s package. Do you even remember her in The Muppets or Charlie Wilson’s War?

If Adams manages an nomination for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, she’ll tie a record of futility at the Academy Awards: Only also-rans Deborah Kerr, Thelma Ritter, and Glenn Close, all with six, have more nominations at the Oscars without a single win. Ritter shined in supporting roles in movies like Rear Window and All About Eve, even though her co-stars got more of the credit, and Close didn’t become a star until Fatal Attraction. Over the past few years, Adams has had a formidable run, with key roles in Oscar players Her, American Hustle, and The Master. She’s even shined in movies that didn’t deserve her: Clint Eastwood’s The Trouble With the Curve was another recent misfire for the once dependable star, but she was great in it.

Is there any actress in Hollywood more perpetually underrated than Amy Adams? After five Oscar nominations, Kate Winslet was an A-list Hollywood star (she finally won for The Reader in 2008). The difference is that Winslet’s nominations, except for Sense and Sensibility, were all in lead, whereas last year’s American Hustle garnered Adams her first Best Actress nomination. Adams’ most recognizable role was playing a Disney princess in 2007’s Enchanted, one of the few times that Amy Adams has been allowed to top-line a film on her own. Playing a cartoon come to life offered Adams her star-making role, but it’s playing full-fledged humans that’s presented a problem.

Amy Adams has long struggled to carve out a space for herself in a Hollywood system that doesn’t really make roles for women like her. Whereas Scarlett Johansson found an unlikely calling playing aliens and action heroes, Adams isn’t a tentpole figure. Even though The Fighter proved she could throw a punch, she’s not a Katniss Everdeen or a Tris Prior, a Wonder Woman or a Black Widow. In the golden age of Hollywood, Adams could have been a Katharine Hepburn figure. The Master proved that Adams can muster some of Hepburn’s steely reserve, while the little-seen Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day showed her knack for screwball comedy. In her short career, there’s almost nothing Amy Adams hasn’t done (she even tried out rom-coms), but for being everywhere, she’s seemingly nowhere.

What is an Amy Adams role then? Julie and Julia, Her, and The Muppets cast her in the part of the long-suffering wife or girlfriend, whereas Sunshine Cleaning and The Fighter showed a more resilient side, whether a scrappy single mom or a bartender who isn’t afraid to snatch a weave. The Master let her finally pull the strings, but from behind the scenes, as an Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate figure. In a 2008 interview with the Washington Post, Adams said that she calls the characters she plays her “lovely girls.” According to her Doubt director, John Patrick Shanley, the through line of an Adams character is that “she knows the world is good, and the people around her don’t.”

However, American Hustle represented something of a departure for Adams. In an interview with the New York Times, Amy Adams confessed that her character, Sydney, was “the most miserable human being [she’s] ever played.” Adams said, “She is not happy. I’m used to playing people that, even if they’re survivors, there’s some sort of light in them. I don’t know that she has that, necessarily.” And perhaps therein lies the problem: The sorts of roles Adams plays are increasingly difficult to find in Hollywood. The industry is having an anti-hero moment; from The Dark Knight to Breaking Bad and Mad Men, we increasingly like our protagonists dark and destructive, and even Superman’s blue tights got a little less bright.

If there isn’t a lot of light left in Hollywood, the situation becomes even more complicated when it comes to women. We want our ladies to go full Walter White—eschewing likability politics with the same gusto that male actors do all the time—as critics like Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles have been pushing for more female anti-heroes on screen. But Adams’ case shows that we need to celebrate more female heroes in general, whether they’re the wife of a meth-dealing mass murderer, a mother struggling to give her children a better life, or a nun trying to see good in the world, even as her faith is tested by darkness. Even as Hollywood struggles to make darker, more complicated roles for women, nice girls need love, too.

This is what Willa Paskin wrote in a 2013 editorial for Slate, arguing that the insistence on unlikable heroines, whether Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe or Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, is holding women back just as much as stock romantic comedies do. “Of course, there are also female characters who are unchallenging and simpering,” Paskin said. “But the nice girl looking for love really does exist, and in 2014 is just as plausible as Amys Jellicoe and Dunne, even if, at the moment, she is way less cool. If unlikable heroines confront us with the reality that not every woman is or has to be pleasing and appropriate, that doesn’t change the fact that many women are pleasing and appropriate.” Like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett, can’t a heroine be likable and awesome at the same time?

What I’ve always loved about Amy Adams’ characters is that they’re more than initially meets the eye. When Junebug viewers are first introduced to Ashley, an expectant mother with a case of word vomit, she appears to be nothing but a ditzy Southern flibbertigibbet. However, the subtlety of Adams’ performance shows how Ashley uses her words to fill the emptiness in her life. Society gives girls like Ashley little to do except be a wife and mother, but neither of those turn out as planned; director Angus Maclachlan underscores this by making the world around Ashley pin-drop quiet. What initially comes off as irritating turns out to be a powerful coping mechanism and a sad metaphor for the actress’ own career. What do you do with a system that gives you nearly nothing to work with? How do you stay strong?

In the case of the recent Big Eyes, Adams seems to be doing the best with what she’s been given. Although she initially wasn’t interested in the role of Margaret Keane, because she couldn’t understand her, what ended up drawing Adams to the painter’s life story was her “quiet strength.” Adams is, of course, being characteristically polite. What this really means is that she took an underwritten part and made it into an Amy Adams role, another of her “lovely girls.” She found the light in the darkness of someone’s life. Oscar bloggers suggest that, while Adams is as good as always, she’s likely to be overlooked come nomination time, overshadowed by showier female roles in Wild, Gone Girl, and Still Alice. At this point, though, Adams is used to it.

In a leaked Sony email, Aaron Sorkin recently said that actresses have it easier than their male counterparts, simply because they don’t have to do as much. “That’s why year in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress,” Sorkin wrote. “Cate [Blanchett] gave a terrific performance in Blue Jasmine, but nothing close to the degree of difficulty for any of the five Best Actor nominees.” But what Sorkin doesn’t understand is that, as the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin put it, “making acting look easy is in fact skull-splittingly difficult.” Sometimes acting is quiet—or almost invisible. Sometimes the greatest trick an actress can pull is making us forget she exists.

You might not remember Amy Adams, but trust me: Her career has been anything but easy.

Photo via Annapurna/YouTube

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.