Amy Adams: A Decade of Awards-Worthy Performances

Sometimes major awards do not reflect an actress's true talent.

Decade Rewind Amy Adams

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.


This past decade saw an endless stream of film-related memes, yet perhaps the saddest one of all is the running joke that Amy Adams just cannot seem to win an Oscar despite being nominated six times. Looking over her filmography from the past 10 years, it seems shocking that she has not yet received the Academy’s approval for her finely tuned acting abilities. From 2010’s lighthearted Leap Year to her shrewd performance as Lynne Cheney in 2018’s Vice, Adams has had one hell of a decade.

As Madison Medeiros writes at Refinery29, Adams’s always-the-bridesmaid status was mostly ignored up until this past year, as her snubs were seemingly overshadowed by the outcry over the lack of wins for Leonardo DiCaprio. Indeed, Leo similarly turned out a number of incredibly committed performances over the past 20 years and only received recognition from the major awards bodies in 2013 for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. When critic Jon Adams tweeted last February that he believed it was unfair that Adams never received the same media narrative as Leo of being “robbed” at awards shows despite delivering higher-quality performances, over 59,000 people liked the tweet, acknowledging that Adams is just as deserving of recognition as her (for all intents and purposes) male counterpart.

Adams had previously received Best Supporting Actress nominations for her performances in Junebug (2005) and Doubt (2008), but her first nomination of the decade came with her performance in The Fighter (2010) as Charlene Fleming, based on the real-life wife of boxer Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg). Prior to The Fighter, Adams had mostly been cast in sweet, well-meaning if not slightly naïve roles, such as her ebullient performance as Princess Giselle in Enchanted (2007). The straight-talking, cynical Charlene could not be further from the bright-eyed and romantic Giselle. In The Fighter, Adams trades castles and ornate ballgowns for low-lit Massachusetts bars and jean shorts.

The Fighter marks the first time Adams demonstrated her astute ability to break out of type and defy expectations of who she is as an actress. Adams herself has acknowledged her history of playing innocent-seeming characters, yet the transition between her earlier work and the darker, more emotionally-fraught performances she has given in the past decade has been incredibly graceful. Adams deserved the Oscar for this role if not only for her quick and mean delivery of the line “Don’t call me skank, I’ll rip that nasty hair right out of your fuckin’ head” upon being confronted by Micky’s judgmental family. In a film full of solid performances (Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo), Adams is the dark horse, quietly taking her already electrifying talent to new and interesting places.

Her next nomination, once again in a supporting role, was for her performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece (pun intended!), The Master. Much like her work in Doubt with Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, Adams proved with The Master that she is able to hold her own working alongside incredible talents, in this case Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Adams plays Peggy Dodd, the partner and wife of the eccentric and terrifying Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of the philosophical movement known as “The Cause.”

Adams demonstrates her incredible instincts as an actor in this film and knows exactly when to leave space for Hoffman to pontificate and when to quietly reveal that she is perhaps the more powerful figure in this partnership. Think of the scene where she tearfully yet forcefully tells Lancaster that “the only way to defend ourselves is to attack” after a man in New York accuses their movement of being a cult. Adams plays this scene with a delicate restraint that just barely holds back her fury. She tempers her hysteria with fiery menace. Anderson once commented that when the cameras turn on, Adams creates “a gigantic explosion of talent and skill and creativity and charisma,” which are qualities that stand in contrast to her unassuming personality off-camera.

However masterful (sorry) this performance, Adams ended up losing the Academy Award to Anne Hathaway for her performance as Fantine in Les Misérables (2013). Hathaway’s performance is indeed one of the best in Les Mis, yet her win confirms the Academy’s bias toward flashy and tragic performances over the kind of offbeat strangeness that PTA and crew achieved with The Master. Despite the Academy’s lack of validation for The Master (sort of, it was still nominated three times), this performance truly secured Adams’s place as one of the most talented and interesting actresses working in Hollywood in the 2010s.

After The Master, Amy Adams brought her ever-growing talent to the DC Universe to play Lois Lane in Man of Steel (2013) and to Spike Jonze’s oddball romantic drama Her (2013), in which she gives a warm and sensitive performance once again opposite Joaquin Phoenix. 2013 was also the year she received her first and so far only Best Actress nomination for her work in American Hustle. Unfortunately, Adams has noted that she was treated poorly on set by director David O. Russell, who has a history of violent and abusive behavior.

Nonetheless, Adams delivers a sultry and expertly-crafted performance as Sydney Prosser, a manipulative con woman who easily shifts into an English alter-ego, Lady Edith Greensly, to extort money from those more financially powerful than her. Yet one wonders if any amount of critical success or number of awards nominations are worth the mistreatment Adams and other actors have endured on the set of Russell’s films.

The case of American Hustle is indeed complex, as the Academy has historically been complicit in abuses of power in Hollywood, rewarding men who have histories of violence towards women. Yet it also remains true that American Hustle features career-defining work for actors such as Adams, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards that year. Ultimately, it is impossible to separate Adams’s performance from the knowledge of her mistreatment, yet this does not take away from her strength and commitment to doing her very best work in spite of her abusive director.

Since 2013, Adams won a Golden Globe for her strange and compelling lead performance as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014) and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her quietly devastating work in Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant Arrival (2016). In 2016 Adams also starred in the nerve-wracking drama Nocturnal Animals as a forlorn and nervous art gallery owner, marking that year as the point when she proved that she can bring a deeply compelling presence to any genre of film, from sci-fi to ultraviolent thrillers.

Adams’ most recent Oscar nomination came last year for her portrayal of Lynne Cheney in Vice (2018), a fine performance in which she sports coiffed blonde hair, pearls, an endless number of matching skirts and blazers, and the uptight and stern air of a fervently committed Republican woman. Yet Adams’s best work of 2018, and perhaps of the decade, is in HBO’s miniseries Sharp Objects, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. Similar to Vice, Adams takes on a Southern accent for her role as Camille Preaker, a depressive reporter from Missouri with a deeply troubling family history.

Adams received both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her work in the series, both of which she lost to Patricia Arquette and Michelle Williams, respectively. If Adams has ever delivered an awards-worthy performance, Sharp Objects is it. The way she slowly unravels the closed-off Camille to reveal her vulnerabilities and desires to be loved and wanted is devastating. Adams is perfectly matched by the frail-yet-menacing Patricia Clarkson, who plays her mother, and the menacing-yet-adorable Eliza Scanlen, as her troubled half-sister. Adams beautifully embodies Camille’s discomfort in her own body and her desperation to feel anything other than grief, fear, and despair. Adams’s work in Sharp Objects is one of the greatest performances in film or television in the past decade.

Simply being nominated for as many awards as Amy Adams has is an achievement in itself — some actors never receive any recognition for their work by any of the major awards bodies. Having said that, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy are not the only arbiters of taste and talent, and even if she had never been nominated for a Golden Globe or an Oscar, Adams has had an astonishingly fruitful decade. Watching her talent grow and change between Enchanted and Sharp Objects has been exciting, and even if she never wins an Academy Award (though she more than likely will!), we can count on the fact that she will continue to surprise us for the rest of her career.

Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.