I didn’t swoon for those early Amy Adams performances that earned raves – Junebug (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress nod in 2006), Doubt (a second Supporting Actress nomination in 2008), Julie & Julia – because she came across as a blank representation of the all-American girl next door and there was something decidedly old-fashioned, out of step with the modern/post-modern women that I wanted to see onscreen. That’s a peculiar position to take, especially for a male (and admittedly biased) writer based in the Midwest. Adams oozes a specific Midwestern vibe, she bleeds it. Fashion models prove to be pretenders in spreads, decked out in flannel, rolling around in the hay. You can tell it’s all a pose for them. But not Adams. She’s the real deal, and because of that she’s always felt like a woman living in the wrong time.
But lo and behold, she flipped the script on me, by hooking up with David O. Russell in 2010 for The Fighter. The all-American girl was gone and in her place was a bitching barmaid named Charlene Fleming, a Boston chick who could stand up to the drunkards around late call and hold her own in the face of opposition from the family of Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky (Christian Bale) Eklund, a bruising, brawling collection of toughs (mostly female) that you’d want backing you up in an alley fight. I sat, mesmerized by the brazen display of harsh flesh, the molten steel in her gaze that would cool and become something unbreakable. With The Fighter, Adams snagged a third Best Supporting Actress nomination, but this time I took notice. Charlene was the kind of woman Hollywood films rarely celebrate and Adams seemed to relish the opportunity to stick it to us. There was nothing polite or mannered in the character or the performance. This wasn’t an appeasement or even a play to prove a point. Adams seemed to be saying, “take it or leave. This is me playing Charlene. Deal with it.”
In terms of critical response, she followed that turn up with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master two years later. Once again, a Best Supporting Actress nod, holding her own alongside a talented headlining ensemble – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (who I couldn’t praise enough for his sturdy elemental work here) – and a director for the ages. I could rationalize that now, Adams had forsaken the good girl pose, but I would be wrong because I was the one who had hoisted that burden on her. She never cared one way or the other. Her choices, her work were all the proof needed to refute that claim. How exciting is it to admit that you’ve made such a blunder of an assessment?
And here she is, again with Russell, hustling her way through his American Hustle. The messy fevered pitch has all of the wild improvisational feel of a young scamming Martin Scorsese or Paul Shrader (although Russell tones down the threat of violence that those two would have turned up to 11 or more), or maybe this is simply what Russell and PT Anderson or David Fincher treat us to today, when they’re working so in the pocket. And Russell is indeed in the pocket, a sweaty and hungry zone, where you play and say anything to keep the game going.
All of the attention is on Christian Bale, as Irving Rosenfeld with his elaborate comb-over hair and that sexy paunch of his that’s part of the con because he’s loose and light on his feet despite the weight, or Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent with a head full of tight little rollers, all hyped up because he needs to believe he’s two steps ahead of everyone when its painfully obvious that he’s lost way back in the dust, or Jennifer Lawrence, Russell’s golden girl from Silver Linings Playbook, here talking too much, showing too much, aching for too much of what she’s not getting from her hubby (Irving) who loves the kid he has adopted more than the woman he married. But Adams, as Sydney Prosser (also known as Dame Edna from London), is the glue holding the whole affair together. She’s got a bit of the rough and tumble of Charlene in her. Sydney has had a tough time in life and she wants something better. Whatever it takes, she will do it, and then some. A fake accent, charm, seduction, honesty, vulnerability. Whatever.
Adams provides it all, and it flows from her organically. It’s all a con, but the point of cons is that they need to convince the mark that they are real. Adams is the real deal, working without a net or anything to conceal the pieces that another actress might not feel comfortable revealing. She’s naked before us, but we’re unaware of the fact that she has stripped us naked too.
Watch out, she’s a pro.