As we wade into the early phases of Awards Season 2019, let’s examine another way in which the Academy chooses to be part of the problem.
Amy Adams’ breakout performance in Catch Me If You Can is good. Moreso now than in 2002, because now Amy Adams is a celebrity, and we can recognize when she disappears behind 1960s southern belle Brenda Strong. It’s even cooler to see her as the sexy goofball in Talladega Nights (2006) or as one of Jim’s early love interests on The Office (2005). Not because these performances were groundbreaking, but because… that’s Amy Adams? The movie star?
Adams’ career is as reliable as her poise as a performer. From Lois Lane to Margaret Keane, she’s good and she’s stayed good. Her résumé is striking and she is universally memorable. So where is her Oscar?
The Academy has always honored careers instead of performances. The biggest pillar of this is Leonardo DiCaprio, who won his first Oscar for Alexander Inñarritu’s The Revenant in 2016. The Revenant is probably Inñarritu’s best movie, and certainly deserved recognition from the Academy. It is not DiCaprio’s best movie, and he didn’t deserve to win for it.
Trite as it be, DiCaprio’s career is as diverse and expansive as Amy Adams’. For an Academy so obsessed with showy, white performances, Jack Dawson and Jay Gatsby himself certainly deserved its attention before 2015. But he could never pull it off in competition with other Hollywood hunks like Matthew McConaughey or Jaime Foxx.
Leo deserved to win for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), which earned him his first nomination. He also deserved to win for Django Unchained (2013), but he wasn’t even nominated. Fans felt robbed when Leo lost his four prior nominations, and were disappointed when The Revenant, a boring thriller with little fan buzz, had to be his only time to shine. Everyone sighed and shrugged when he won: he deserved to eventually!
The narrative changes when Amy Adams is nominated for and loses five Oscars in nine years. When she didn’t get a nod for her beloved role in Arrival (2017), fans were disappointed. We can’t be shocked, however, because the Academy doesn’t reward women on the same basis as it does men.
The 90th Oscars were wholly disappointing in this regard. Despite the ceremony’s backdrop of #MeToo and TIME’S UP, confirmed lunatic Gary Oldman took home Best Actor for his underwhelming performance in Darkest Hour. For months, we unanimously decided Oldman must win for wearing a fat suit and slamming tables; not necessarily because the role had any impression on us, but because we understood it was loud and theatric enough to garner voters’ attention. Oldman had been lurking at the doors of the Dolby since Dracula (1992), never really getting more from the industry than an occasional BAFTA. We knew the 90th was his time, and he maybe even kinda deserved it.
The fight in female categories is entirely different. In some ways it is more like it should be: actors are time-appropriately awarded for performance achievements of the year, rather than for their boisterous careers in action movies punctuated by some indie appearances. In other ways, of course, women’s place in Awards Season is tarnished by ageism and sexism in ways men’s never could.
The most recent Academy Awards were marginally more age and gender-inclusive, handing Oscars to two older women like it was nothing. In comparison to years of only honoring Brie Larson, Emma Stone, and Alicia Vikander, seeing Frances McDormand and Allison Janney, two women over 60, accept performance awards was incredibly refreshing. However, the 2018 female nominees were still excluded from the career-honoring culture that benefits Hollywood men. In 2017, Emma Stone’s Best Actress was a bone thrown to La La Land, the showiest Awards Season darling in recent memory. It was not unlike Leo’s win, garnering otherwise lost attention for a theatric motion epic. Neither actor necessarily deserved to win, but they were honored in the spirit of appreciating the year with a wider scope. The difference is that Emma Stone’s CV is ten years shorter and less prestigious than Leo’s. Was an Oscar in 2017 supposed to be a belated reward for her impressive work in 2011’s The Help? A celebration of her long-forgotten cameo in Superbad (2007)? Why wasn’t Natalie Portman’s illustrious career honored for her far-superior portrayal of Jackie? Why wasn’t Amy Adams nominated for either of her two leading roles that season?
The all-too bro-y defense of this strange culture is the same one employed by misogynists across the entertainment industry: Gary Oldman and Leonardo DiCaprio are just better actors than Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, and have thus had more impressive careers. This sentiment could be picked a part in a million different ways, but the most productive is to deny its truth altogether. Even the lack of compelling femme roles and opportunities for female actors have not visibly obstructed the careers of history’s best actresses. While Marion Cotillard and Rosamund Pike might not be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, their most recognized performances are measurably just as full. When lined up, side by side, it’s hard to identify why Daniel Day Lewis’s career is better than Nicole Kidman’s.
I think it’s worth while, then, to dissect a resolute example of this problem with Awards culture: Amy Adams.
Adams’ first big role in 2016 was “Susan” in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a widely underrated thriller not dissimilar in its excess and might to A Single Man (2009). Most of it is spent with Susan and her thoughts; we watch her drive a narrative forward with just her own beats of regret and despair. Amy Adams is captain of this ship, grounding an otherwise lukewarm cast of screaming white men. Without the garishness of Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding or Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle (2013), Amy Adams nails a timeline of emotions, acting as a gatekeeper to the visuals that unfold.
Adams’ other leading role that season was “Louise” in Arrival, a successful sci-fi that challenged modern interpretations of women in the genre and the potential for future alien movies. Again, a movie that leaves the plot up to her character, it let Amy Adams prove every capability an actor of her celebrity should have. Screentime was devoted to just her face and voice, allowing audiences to experience the leading lady’s reactions, not unlike Leo’s Revenant. While Nocturnal Animals was mostly ignored, Arrival received enough buzz to get on some performance ballots. It took home Best Achievement in Sound Editing, leaving Adams without even a nod.
If any contemporary performance career deserves to be honored by the Academy, it’s Amy Adams’. Her exclusion from the 2016/17 season could be justifiably attributed to crowding out from other great performances, but my frustration with her lost year is instead with the pop cultural reaction to it. While the Oscars’ embargo on Leonardo DiCaprio was met with decade-long outrage, Adams is seldom acknowledged by journalists and critics arguing for a change in Awards Season. As her career attempts to snake around these obstacles, it is incredibly disheartening to see such little support from film folk who blindly venerate male careers of similar calibers.
Frances McDormand and Allison Janney don’t make up for Amy Adams, and appeasing social justice warriors for one season isn’t going to keep us at bay. Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG, and Spirit nominees are still overwhelmingly white and straight. The women are also much younger than the men, showing where the industry’s values lie in female performers and filmmakers. Amy Adams is just one example of great women deserving more from their industry, leading an army of actors including Melissa McCarthy and Ann Dowd. We’re experiencing a generational glut of female talent being allowed to participate in entertainment, something that both influences and reacts to the way it is presented on Oscar night.
Amy Adams proves these great women are more than romantic interests and moms. She can do both, and anything else, but will still stand empty handed come spring. Whatever role she takes next should be met with #PoorAmy until the career she’s gifted this industry is properly honored. Are there any fat world leaders she could impersonate?