This may be a strange thing to say about a six-time Academy Award nominee and fixture of American movies, but I worry that we undervalue Amy Adams. Though applauded for her multifaceted, lightly chameleonic performances, her unassuming prowess is often treated as a given. In other words, we love Amy Adams — but do we know why we love her?
When the actress was passed over for an Oscar nomination for 2016’s “Arrival,” an uproar ensued. The outrage was understandable. Then again, so was the lack of a nomination: mixing wonderment, curiosity and sorrow as a linguist making close encounters of the third kind, Adams’ subtle touch made it look deceptively easy.
Ease and subtlety are among Adams’ fortes, but they’re also rare in a culture quick to reward queasily conspicuous effort and the awards-baiting showiness of a complete physical transformation. Unlike a number of her peers, Adams seems to thrive on the bond she can naturally establish with an audience by remaining truthful in the eye of the camera, no matter the character.
In HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” a fractured meditation on female grief and violence for which Adams received an Emmy nomination, the actress uses her gift for psychological realism to plunge us into the darkest material she’s ever tackled. As Camille Preaker, a binge-drinking, self-harming crime journalist returning to her small Missouri hometown — the site of both ancestral traumas and a set of grisly new murders — Adams practices a form of casually seamless shape-shifting that is no less impressive for drawing on her knack for subtle transformation.
Yet psychological realism and subtle transformation seldom make for award-winning performances. “Sharp Objects” aired on HBO in the summer of 2018, well over a year before Sunday night’s Emmy telecast. In that time, Adams’ performance has been eclipsed by two acclaimed portrayals of real women: Patricia Arquette’s radical cosmetic makeover as disgraced prison worker Joyce Mitchell in “Escape at Dannemora” (which won a Golden Globe) and Michelle Williams’ vocally adept and aptly mannered take on Broadway idol Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon” (which won a prize from the Television Critics Assn.) are far more in line with the types of conspicuous performances that tend to sway voters and garner trophies than Adams’ stripped-down depiction. When it comes to audience attention, Adams faces serious competition even from within her own show: Emmy nominee Patricia Clarkson, as Camille’s mother-slash-torturer, so dominates her many scenes with Adams that the latter often becomes a taciturn and terrified observer in her presence.
Clarkson brilliantly reveals the mortal frailty of her antagonist, but Adams’ assignment is the more difficult. Camille has been irreparably damaged by voracious men, maternal malice and a blazing self-hatred that no amount of care and counseling can erase — and while director Jean-Marc Vallée‘s manic, crisscross construction of the series effectively evokes a shattered head space, it’s up to Adams to be its human manifestation.
Adams has never played a character quite so bitter or traumatized. Camille is a far cry from “Junebug’s” chipper Southern innocent or “Enchanted’s” giddy storybook princess. In “Sharp Objects,” the actress buries all traces of these warmhearted women — as well as her own her beaming off-screen persona — beneath a downcast demeanor, vibrating with intensity and wearing loathing like a second skin. Dropping her voice an octave, she speaks with a convincing drawl scorched by liquor and coated with irony; her whisper requires rapt concentration. Her skulking, slouching and grimacing complements a character who long ago decided her exterior should match the disgust that chokes her inside. As Camille, Adams inverts her innate charisma, weaponizing it as a means to uncover answers she’s not sure she can stomach.
A character this inclined to contempt could have grown alienating and monotonous, but Adams’ engaging characterization is far from one-note. Adams gives Camille the poker-faced inquisitiveness of a true reporter — an eagle eye for veiled words and tell-all behavior. Watching her probe suspects and size up strangers with a dry politeness that’s friendly but withholding is a reminder of how a great actor can turn the simple business of thinking into an act of startling vitality.
Meanwhile, Adams utilizes her close-ups to show the viewer the solitary vulnerability Camille strains to conceal: She treats the camera like a confessional, expressing progressions in Camille’s consciousness with little more than a shift in her pupils or a flicker of her lids. The actress’ sultry stares can single-handedly raise the temperature of a scene; her cool gaze, cast over a debauched night with stepsister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), can feel like a refreshing mist. At one crucial point, Camille raises her eyes at Clarkson’s Adora with a look of unblinking defiance that says her mother’s mistreatment will no longer be ignored. And in the series’ final scene, as Camille is confronted with the depths of ruthless evil that runs in her family, Adams wordlessly conjures an abyss of devastation, using only the contortions of her face and the reddening of her eyes.
The performance isn’t wholly built of moments this understated — an apoplectic, muffled scream in a dressing room is one of several instances in which Camille’s rage boils over — but for the most part, Adams’ portrayal is one of muted power, which may explain why the performance has generally been treated as an also-ran this year. (At present, only one of 27 experts polled by awards prediction website GoldDerby predicts Adams to win.)
Many actors act excessively, desperate for us to marvel, in the moment, at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. By contrast, Adams is a modest technician. Gradually removing the masks her characters wear, Adams illuminates their inner lives and private aches until we feel for ourselves what Adams, as their interpreter, seems to feel in her bones. Maybe it’s this contrast — generous with feeling but reluctant to accentuate her skill — that has prevented Adams from being name-checked among our top-tier thespians, even the ones whose work comes at the expense of emotional connection.
Adams reminds us that a performer’s ease doesn’t signify an absence of effort — it’s the result of it. The preparation that allows an actor to immerse viewers in a narrative without unnecessary emphases is the work. In one way or another, all characters begin as strangers to both viewer and actor — but few dismantle the boundary as adroitly as Adams. And if it all looks so easy, maybe it’s time for us to reevaluate our conception of what “award-worthy” screen acting entails — or look harder at the craft that’s hiding in plain sight.