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« Spirit Award Winners | Main | But who did Zhang Ziyi vote for? »
Saturday
Mar012014

Why Amy Adams Might Have Us All Fooled, or The Emancipation of Sydney.

Hello, lovelies. Beau here, gone for far too long, with something that I've been racking my brain over for the better part of two months.

Much has already been said about American Hustle, on this site and throughout the internet in general, and the film has taken on a kind of love-it-or-hate-it reputation that makes it seem even more controversial than Scorsese's touted lightning rod, The Wolf of Wall Street. Whereas that film is richly deserving of its many dissenting opinions, the criticisms being levied at Hustle tend to direct themselves at its lightness, so to speak. A puff pastry strutting about in sequins. Indeed, the general consensus for a long period of time was that the film was too light to be considered a threat for the Oscar for Best Picture. Its themes of survival are dwarfed by Gravity, a film where said theme is made literal and considerable. Themes of deception are dwarfed by the hedonists of Wolf of Wall Street. Jennifer Lawrence's show-stopping performance in particular has become a source of contention, with mentions of miscasting, ageism, an inconsistent accent all to blame.

And while I have my own reservations about the film, there has been one particular element of the picture that's been thrashing about in my head, one performance that I can't seem to lay my finger on entirely. It evades me, like a crook whose face I know and can identify, but who always seems just out of my grasp. [More...]

Amy Adams has been in the spotlight for nearly ten years now. In that time, she's accumulated five Oscar nominations, eclipsing Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Pheiffer. She's ridden the wave of stardom with relative ease: promising ingenue (Catch Me if You Can), breakthrough talent (Junebug), charistmatic starlet (Enchanted), ensemblist (Doubt), romantic leading lady (Leap Year), then changing her career trajectory at just the right time with The Fighter, The Master, American Hustle, all the while landing her first tepid franchise with Man of Steel while still twiddling her big-eyed innocent persona through her fingers in The Muppets. Her theiving heart in American Hustle is most appropriate then, if we're to consider her varied career playing different variables.

After my first viewing of Hustle, of its central quintet, Adams' performance was the one that impressed the least. Lawrence, for all the aforementioned criticims levied at her, has a magnificent emotional availability in the picture that, in my humble opinion, manages to supercede any qualms about her accent or her age. She is thrown a Leaning Tower of Pisa of a character, and instead of setting her upright, takes the bolder choice and enters her into a game of Limbo. How far can you veer off-kilter without losing your center? And in turn for doing this, she's rewarded by allowing us a glimpse at this fully-rounded, flamboyant Cassandra, who has nothing to lose but everything to gain. Lawrence has chained herself to a two-ton anvil composed of blue flames and committed truth, but just because Rosalyn can't escape, doesn't mean she's not gonna dance the Flamenco in the interim. It is a breathtaking performance.

You're too much.'

Cooper's energy and Bale's play are both remarkable in the picture, as is Renner's unheralded no-nonsense soulfulness. But Adams struck me as the one false note in the ensemble, the player whose finger missed the pulse of the picture. The beat was off. One trait I take note of in actors while they're performing, if their choices are unclear to me or waver, is a flicker of the eye. Doubt clouding the character or actor if they're uneasy with their choices or are trying too hard to push an emotino? I see this with Adams from time to time, and it was readily apparent in the first ten seconds of our meeting her in the picture.

Adams has gone on record several times, the latest of which during her interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, of saying that Sydney was 'the saddest character' she's ever played. When the work was done, Sydney had to go. But the caper element of American Hustle lends the picture its lightness, so that even in dire, drastic situations, we're constantly reminded of the film's decision to acknowledge the delightful absurdity of it all. Adams, however, never really taps into that vein. 

But then recently, I find myself reconsidering her work in the picture. There is something to be said of an actor who recognizes his or her position in a story, (one of my favorite footnotes is Hathaway asking Ang Lee during production on Brokeback Mountain what color he'd like her to be in his painting that day), and a vision of said story. But what is infinitely frustrating about what Adams does in Hustle is that the work itself is almost beyond reproach. It is all in service of a character performing, and performing badly, who has committed so fully to an idea of a person who lacks any foundation beyond her self-appointed stature, that she's forgotten along the way to color her with different crayons than the ones she currently holds. 

Consider the wavering accent and its inconsistent timing; while awaiting the arrival of Sheikh Abdullah, Bale's Irving makes a last ditch effort to win back Sydney's trust. Replying in character, Syndey has placed a considerable gap between who she was, but also remains at a sizable distance from who she'll ultimately never be, leaving her in an emotional purgatory for which she remains through the bulk of the film. Her line, 'You're nothing to me until you're everything.', leaves the suggestion that she'll make the trek back to him, but that the cost of abandoning that possibility of happiness that Lady Edith could promise is only worthwhile if there's something substantial enough to replace it on the other side. 

In creating such a character with the hopes of ultimately committing herself over to it fully, Adams' Sydney views Lady Edith with such reverence and humility that you could almost envision her bowing at dawn to her shrine. But the extension that serves as bridge between the two women is a rickety one, a structure unsound built of false hopes and lost dreams. Sydney is an O.G. Disco Diva, who lacks at her core the self-sustaining capabilities that fuel the women of her day and the women of our own. Beyonce recognizes Sasha Fierce as an extension. Mariah Carey acknowledges Mimi as her elevated self. But Sydney's ultimate undoing is in her failure to correct her own Leaning Tower of Pisa. You cannot build on rotten wood. 

Adams' performance then, is all the more evasive in that it is one lost in an enigma wrapped in a shawl donning a Burger King crown. It doesn't keep pace with its contemporaries as they scatter about freely; it strides waveringly, like a three-year old trying on her mother's Jimmy Choos for the first time. 

You got the looks, but you don't have the touch. 

But maybe that was the point all along. It's a flicker of the eye that may have undone me with Amy Adams; It might be a better performance than I'll ever know.

 

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Reader Comments (24)

For me Adams gave the best performance in the movie (JLaw close 2nd). I saw Sydney as a woman who really doesn't like herself- who is she ans where she is in her life. Irving is the only good thing so she clings to him, but then her fantasy of him is crushed when she is arrested. The only thing she has left if Edith. Edith is a lady, fashionable, and men drool over her. Edith is who she wants to be, but can't become. Adams shifts between these people throughout the movie. My favorite scene with her (besides that bathroom scene- please show on Oscar night) is when she outlines her plan to Irving to get Richie to like her. Sydney and Edith are talking in the scene. Watch her face as she shifts. It's a great scene.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertom

What I admire about this performance is how Adams conveys Sydney's love for Bale's character so strongly at the beginning that even when it seems that she's wavering, and perhaps falling for Cooper's Richie DeMasio, I never doubted that the love was still there. It's buried beneath hair and dresses and accents and plot twists, and yet Adams lets you know, sometimes only with her eyes (those EYES!) that this is a long con...one that's going to get her back to Irving (or else she'll go to jail trying).

Amy Adams is willing to play her role in the ensemble in the midst of so many scene-stealing showoffs -- this has always been her strength (she did it in Doubt, The Fighter and The Master, too). She's not an actor scrambling to be seen above all the other actors; she does her work and knows you'll find her, as the story demands.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I was just wondering... she was really fantastic in this movie! In fact, everyone was so great and the movie was amazing. We were just so influenced by all the hate comments on the internet. Just because people don't want the two Hustle ladies to win over Cate and Lupita, why can't they just acknowledge their greatness? Both are so wonderful, layered performances. There's a certain blogger who especially loves generating hate when her pet movies are threatened by them. :P Especially, if it comes to sexy female roles.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdinasztie

Yes, some appreciation for Amy Adams! I can't recall an actress with five Oscar nominations be considered with as little regard as she is currently viewed, and it drives me nuts. I like her humble but confident approach to acting, the way many of her best performances get more layers on rewatch, that she refuses to overact, that any notes that may seem over the top in her performances are actually tricky tonal or stylistic adjustments based on the material, the way she generously tilts her acting choices so that she and her partners both come off well. She doesn't have the tsunami charisma of a Jennifer Lawrence or Meryl Streep, but Amy Adams is almost always the integral undercurrent that buoys the movie along where it needs to go.

Depending on whom you ask, two to three of her nominations are regarded as lazy, undeserved or default. The only one where she got in easy was Doubt in my opinion, but I think the rest of her nominations are well-earned with two key performances not getting any traction at all (Her & <I>Enchanted).

And as for her performance in American Hustle, I think it's a great performance of shifting identities, and she manages the trickiest feat of them all, her real self peeking through an artificial identity, in a way that doesn't call attention to itself at all -- it's not neatly parsed out as a "Sydney's here now." And why should it, because she's a con artist and possibly the best con in her movie, so adept at it that sometimes, she almost convinces herself.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFlickah

I think over time AMERICAN HUSTLE may emerge (along with perhaps WOLF OF WALL STREET) as one of the under-appreciated masterpieces of this Oscar season. Upon only one viewing it's easy to pigeon hole the film as a sort of farcical, messy nostalgic comedy dressed up in sequins and heels, but upon multiple viewings the film is filled with layers and choices that I think are all part of David O. Russell's brilliant exploration of the theme of artifice and the eternal fraud of the American dream.

Nothing is what it seems in AMERICAN HUSTLE. And I chuckle at some of what people find phony about the movie (Jennifer Lawrence being "too young" for the role she is playing for example) when I can already see, upon repeated viewings, that these choices were in fact carefully planned and in fact, the brilliant con is on us.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

For me, she and Bradley Cooper were the best -- it's so interesting to see how so many people prefer different performances with this film.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Amy Adams gave by far my favourite performance from that movie.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I admit, Amy Adams is not one of my favorite actresses. I find her to be a rather flat screen presence and think that she struggles with putting personalizing stamps on her roles. After viewing an Adams performance, I often contemplate who could have been more effective in the part and come up with a laundry list of possibilities.

That being said, my admiration for Adams' work in 'American Hustle does not stem from loyalty to the actress, Rather, I think her approach to the character is unexpected (in a good way) and that she gives the film some depth. She wouldn't make my Best Actress ballot, but I like her much more now.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

I think, for me, that out of place element is what I liked so much about Amy Adams' interpretation of the character. She's playing a character who has no real identity anymore. She's run away from the things she ran away to and assumed another fake identity to try to feel like she belongs. She's the perpetual outsider. Sadness is her currency. She can take no joy in actual success because she refuses to let herself be happy.

And, I have to say, that's the best explanation I've seen for Lawrence's performance I've seen. She's pushing things just to push them. That's the core of the character. There are no boundaries because no one can say no to her. Her family can't complain because her husband is rich, and her husband can't complain because she'll take the kid, the house, and everything he owns if they split. She has nothing to lose because she can snap her fingers and make a better version of anything come right back into her life.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I thought I would passionately love American Hustler, but I didn't. I'm really counting on a second viewing to change that.

I like Amy Adams in almost everything she does and here she looks more beautiful than ever and has a pretty great scenes, but I also feel that the movie abandons her character the minute Jennifer Lawrence walks in.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Lovely article Beau! It's so refreshing to read a thoughtful piece about this movie that doesn't attack anyone in it. So hats off for that first of all.

Second, I'm with you. I've probably seen this movie too many times and I always feel disconnected when it comes to Amy, but I do feel this was precisely what she was trying to achieve. Sometimes I've had the silly theory that the entire thing might as well be bipolar Sydney's existential dream (or nightmare) but on a less fantastical notion, I am in love with how bad her accent is, how forced she makes it sound, how uncomfortable she looks when she has to act as Edith and how still she convinces us that everyone around her believes what she says is true.

This is why I adore the bathroom scene, for it's perhaps the one moment when Rosalyn and Sydney are forced to look at each other in front of a mirror and realize that they've been looking away for far too long. That they instead choose to destroy each other right there and then (I was half expecting the whole thing to turn into "The Lady from Shanghai" for a sec!) says a lot about these characters' state of mind and also about the unique universe Russell constructed for them.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Fascinating commentary, especially since it's so well articulated but completely different from what I took away from the performance. I have begged for a discussion of concerns with the accent, which I think is executed brilliantly and flawlessly. There are so many little touches in her performance that I absolutely adore - for instance, in the scene above where she first meets Bale's character, her voice is completely flat. I thought that was an acting mistake when I first saw it, but I later realized that's what Sydney feels about herself - not very interesting. She has an almost palpable need to be loved, and when she feels herself melting into human emotion, Edith often shows up as her defense. (I could see someone thinking her accent shift in her argument with Bale after her arrest was a mistake - I thought it was a brilliant slide from horror to loss to Edith taking over in defend/attack mode.) She's a fascinating centerpiece for the circus around her, because we never know what call she will ultimately make in the con, and she doesn't seem to know herself. I never knew what she was going to do at any given moment, but I bought everything she did in the end (and was delighted by some of her surprising choices).

It was also refreshing to see a story with a gorgeous woman at the center focus on her choices rather than the choices of a male counterpart. In real life, a stunner like Sydney would be weighing her options. It was also wonderful to see her end up with someone who truly gets her, and to actually see why that would happen. If I hadn't been so enthralled with this character, the movie would have been a completely different experience for me.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I think Adams is least well regarded 5-time Oscar nominee in history, that might be true. She is not considered a great actress with a lot of range, but yet everyone like her enough to keep nominating her (is she the most nominated Italian actress ever? I think she is).

While I'm one of those who like her a lot (withouth considering her great), I think her nominations -besides Junebug- are just a result of perfect timing and being in the right movies. For Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle, she was always nominated alongside bigger names, and she was always the least likely one of them to get that nomination: PSH and Streep were locks in Doubt, Melissa Leo and Bale were the frontrunners in The Fighter, Phoenix and PSH were up and front in The Master, and her American Hustle nomination was frankly a surprise.

I think her place in the industry and Oscar history has a lot to do with luck, and therefore she'll never win unless she's the undeniable best thing about her movie, not coasting on the film success. I do think this can totally happen, she has proven to be a welcome presence in whatever project she's in and has racked a lot of nominations in a short time without any form of backlash.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

This is probably the most beautifully written explanation of why Lawrence was/is my personal MVP of the American Hustle cast. I can't say I agree with your initial take on Adams, though. She was always a very close second for me, though she's tied with Bradley Cooper for that honor.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

One of the many things I admire about Adams is her generosity to the other actor in the scene with her. She always gives the other actor exactly what they need to complete their character. At the same time, she stays true to the character she is playing herself. She finds that point of intersection where both their characters work so well that they drive the narrative forward.

And Adams can work with anyone. She has worked with other actors who have reputations for being difficult, or artistically demanding, or divas, or shallow and self-absorbed, etc. and found the right tone with all of them. They look good with her. No wonder she's popular.

I've only seen American Hustle twice, but Adams is the soul of that movie.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

She SO should've won for Junebug! Rachel Weisz was great, but Adams was extraordinary.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Oh she is just a gift to the movies.

I agree with the people who say that Doubt was the only one of her nominations that isn't entirely justifiable. And her lack of nominations for Enchanted and Her more than compensates.

She has already demonstrated range and taste in roles/auteurs to match and/or even surpass the likes of Kidman, Close, Pfeiffer etc. (And I say this with great respect for these women.)

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

In fact, if anything, AMPASS has ripped her off. There was no better supporting performance in either category than her work in Junebug in '05 (supporting performance of the decade in my books) or The Fighter in '10. So that's two awards she missed out on for no good reason.

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Beau, a fascinating piece. I loathed AH and doubt I can ever sit thru it again. But you've given me something to ponder. I did think Adams was quite good despite the sloppy script. She showed a rare resourcefulness with this badly written part.

March 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

What a vivsection! It's an interesting POV. But you failed to mention her very first performance, as "Leslie Miller" in Drop Dead Gorgeous, which demonstrated right off the bat that she can be a fearless -- and fearsome -- comedienne with plenty of verve to belie the wit. I still marvel at the perfect tonality (given the film around it) of that performance, and was therefore not at all surprised that she nailed it in American Hustle (and how). Go get that Oscar, girl!

March 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

The Mariah reference made me click the article.

March 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMessiah Careysus

I thought the script for AH was flawed but enjoyed Amy Adams' performance (my MVP would have been Renner and would like to give some love to a tiny role by Louis CK). I actually think she could pull off the upset tonight. Not likely, but I can imagine a scenario where some voters want to avoid any Woody Allen talk onstage and other voters wanting AH to grab a major award other than Costumes turn to Adams since the other four acting categories are fairly locked (Jared, Lupito and Matthew). I think screenplay goes to Her so where do they honor AH? 10 nominations and they come away with one award for costumes?

March 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEddie

I honestly think those who didn't think Adams was good or among the best in show honestly, did not watch the movie right. It's not even about taste in whether they liked it or disliked it, not appreciating the character makes me question how they could possibly like the movie without that performance. She is the heart of the film.

March 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Perhaps you were looking for too much depth in a character that in truth was just a grifter. She provided a balance for Bale which in itself rrequires a set of chops. The producers, directors and script writers set a course for characters and is it not possible she played to the depth they wanted without concern for elevation of her own status? A stronger character here probably would not have let Bale emote as he did in a very understated role. Thought she was perfect myself.

June 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDale Eble

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