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David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Why Amy Adams Deserves To a Win Best Actress This Year (Spoilers)

American Hustle is a movie about con artists. But it’s not The Sting, or Sneakers, or even The Grifters.

Even though it is set against the real-life 1970s-1980s Abscam investigation, which used cons to (en)trap politicians, it’s not about politics or political corruption.

American Hustle is about the human condition. And almost everyone in the film is on some kind of con. The two most honest major characters in the film are The Politician played by Jeremy Renner and The Mafioso played by Robert DeNiro. Normally, those archetypes would be the bad guys. But “bad” has a very different measure in David O. Russell’s world.


At the center of the emotional parallelogram of the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams. She is not a good girl. She is perfectly willing to play the game… whatever game will get her where she needs to get right now. Even before joining the elaborate gamesmanship of Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), Sydney reinvents herself as a fledgling/rising employee at Helen Gurley’s Cosmopolitan magazine.

In the context of the film, Sydney is the Dorothy Gale in an inverted Oz. Irving has the brains. Richie DiMaso has the nerve. And Rosalyn Rosenfeld has the heart. It’s not clear whether Sydney has ever had a “home” to which she’d ever return. Her idea of “home” is something real. That is the word she uses… “real.” That is why she chooses this odd Oz. Somehow, all the unreality needs to lead to “real.”

The other three central characters also want something. But none of them wants to leave “Oz.” Irving wants freedom. Richie wants power. And Roasyln wants passion.

When Sydney jumps through the looking glass and becomes Edith, she turns from black & white to color. The difference between this Dorothy and the original is that she knows where she is. She understands the players. She knows she has to make the journey.

Richie could never give her what she seeks. He is too weak. Rosalyn is in the way of what she seeks. She is too needy. And once Sydney decides to give up on the unreality, Irving is the only one who can go there with her.

This is the second year in a row in which a director has created a character for Amy Adams that is of lower intensity than the characters around her and yet she has quiet control,  the ultimate power in the story. Both directors also wrote to the power of her sexuality, including, in The Master, the power of reproduction.

What is so remarkable about Adams’ work in American Hustle is how many layers she has to play through most of the movie. It’s no coincidence that David O. Russell had her give the vast majority of her performance with both accents, so he could make the choice between them in editing. If he didn’t do it that way, no doubt, the actor would chart out the moments in which she would turn the accent on and turn it off. I imagine that Ms Adams made those choices before coming to set. But she gave both performances so the director, once cutting, could hit the notes the way he wanted every time as he discovered how the entire piece played.

But beyond the accent, Adams is playing with the audience’s sense of truth throughout the film. We know when Irving is lying. We know when Richie is lying. And we know that Rosalyn only ever bothers to lie to herself. Sydney/Edith is the only character who is really a question mark through most of the film. Is she ever really considering Richie? Does she hate Rosalyn or secretly wish she could be Rosalyn? Is she loyal to anything other than herself?

And when Sydney cracks, she really cracks. The movie is never more real than when she is sitting on the floor of the interrogation room, stripped of control. The camera looks into Adams’ eyes and you can practically dolly into the absence of her spirit for a moment. She is drained the way a soldier might be after a losing battle or a mother might be in the 40th hour of labor.

Richie comes in, happily singing his FBI man street poetry in his Serpico fantasy. Irving sees what is happening inside of Sydney—still keeping her Edith on for the sake of control and to keep Richie at a distance—and is rocked to his core.

After this, when Sydney tells Irving her plan, she goes another level beneath, performing her roles beyond his ability to differentiate.

I think this element, like the con story, throws some audiences off. They see it as flawed, while I see it as an intentional choice to play off of the traditional genre notes. Sydney doesn’t do the classic movie game of pitting of two men against each other, waiting to see which one wins to make her choice while the audience roots for the inevitable winner. Audiences enjoy that game. But Russell isn’t that easy.

There is not a second of doubt in Adams’ performance. There is not a moment in which she plays it too big… a moment when she disappears…. a moment when you can’t read in her eyes either her truth or the truth her character is selling. She is a lion in this role.

By the end of the film, it is only Sydney who has the brains, the guts, the nerve, and the magic of a wizard.

There are a lot of great actresses giving great performances this year. Even in the same film, there is Jennifer Lawrence sprinkling her charisma over the proceedings and knocking audiences out. But Adams’ performance is fearless and relentless and intimate in a way that no other actress in this race has offered this year. She is not “performing.” She is not a blank slate onto which we can project our private notions. She is not just giving us everything the most compelling actresses can, overcoming whatever box in which they may be placed.

Amy Adams gave us a fully formed, adult, layered, likable, unlikable, sexy, broken, scared, fearless, powerful, loving, lying, needy, winning woman. And she deserves to win—not just to be nominated for—to win Best Actress this year… on the occasion of her fifth nomination.

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18 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Why Amy Adams Deserves To a Win Best Actress This Year (Spoilers)”

  1. QG says:

    I can go with that, but if they gave an Oscar for ensemble, I could really recommend it. Loved all the performances. DeNiro? Most powerful and scary three minutes ever, outstanding. Best movie I’ve seen all year, that I can remember. Agreed on Amy’s many levels, and the mystery of them.

  2. Pj says:

    Adams doesn’t just deserve a nom, she deserves to win! The most powerful layered and strong female character of the year!

  3. Stephen Holt says:

    I couldn’t understand what she was saying or playing half the time, and I bet the Academy doesn’t “get” it either.

  4. Waterbucket says:

    She can’t win best actress with Jennifer Lawrence overshadowing her with a louder and more memorable role.

  5. Kate says:

    Adams deserves a nomination more than anyone else in the film. She played a more complex, deeper, more difficult role. Lawrence was great but she was also purposefully showy in a way that just read forced to me. She was also much too young. Adams was compelling and cunning. She’s a woman of steel that hides her pain with a princess smile.

    Amy Adams is the woman of steel.

  6. DS says:

    100% agree with you, she’s supposed to be the strongest contender for Best Leading Actress to win, because this year she’s about to win Globes and others for best actress in comedy (If they’re not dumb enough keep giving it to Meryl), it’s ridiculous if The Academy snub her. All of the contenders are Oscar winner, only Adams who hasn’t, and they likely give oscar to someone who never won before, I’m not sure they’ll be that easy to give multiple oscar.

  7. Sam E. says:

    I don’t really disagree. In some ways though I think it’s a better character than performance. Adams was good. She didn’t have the passion or craziness though that drove Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine which is IMO rightly consider the front runner.

  8. Dan Lundquist says:

    The tightest, most brilliant combo of script and portrayal ever. This review is a bulls-eye: rich, multilayered… Adams is so, so good her craftwork may make her supreme accomplishment seem too easy for some to “get,” but it is worth the try.

    This movie is about scams the way Moby Dick is a story about whales….

    Brilliant, with no loose ends.

  9. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I’ve only seen it once, but to me, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence were the standouts. How Bale and DeCaprio (in WOLF OF WALL STREET) aren’t considered the two towering frontrunners for Best Actor is a complete mystery to me.

  10. dan says:

    Hopefully it will be Cate, Sandra, Judi Emma and AMY nominated.

  11. JoeS says:

    With all the ridiculous speculation about nominating Scarlet Johannson for HER, what’s neglected is that Amy Adams is the most fully rounded and complete female actress in the movie. She should be getting the buzz for Supporting Actress for that film as well.

  12. BenN says:


  13. Pete says:

    Excellent analysis of Adams’ performance. Her performance in Her may increase the likelihood of a victory in the BA category. And the body and variety of her work over only a few years. Other than Bullock/Gravity, the other films the leading actresses are in will probably not get a slew of nominations. That means most Academy members will watch American Hustle. I think Dave is on to something.

  14. M. says:

    Adams was great but…it was Jennifer Lawrence who was the standout for me. Lawrence made me feel sorry for Rosalyn Rosenfeld (and I shouldn’t!…LOL!). All the scenes involving Jennifer Lawrence were the scenes I kept thinking about the most long after I had left the theater.

  15. joshua says:

    i agree, too bad the story was so lame. if they had done a better job writing her role, they should have focused on it as the central story, shed be winning some precursors. AH reminds me of ILD, both had excellent acting and good directing with not much storyline, the difference being that ILD is so well written and edited that it flows nicely and entertains. Oscar Issac should be winning best actor, but Dicaprio is a close second.

  16. robert says:

    The big thing missing in her performance was the WHY of any of her actions. The character, that is. But WHY? that’s what was missing. And Russell subjected her to so many long closeups where she gave NOTHING. He clearly sees something that I don’t. Essentially, Ms. Adams is a supporting actress. He could have reversed the roles with Jennifer Lawrence as an experiment. Ms. L. was also too young to be Mr. Bale’s wife. And no one has mentioned that Mr. B is essentially imitating Robert De Niro throughout most of the movie. Was I supposed to be so aware of all the acting?

  17. shawn says:

    Amy Adams is one of the top actresses of our time. She is versatile and can play straight roles and over the top character roles. Few actors in the history of film have her control, her subtle understanding of character, and her extreme versatility. If she does not get this one, she deserves one soon. I put her with the classic actresses of 40s and 50s film.

  18. Chris says:

    Jennifer Lawrence is a cute girl. Amy Adams is a gorgeous woman.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon