For Your Consideration: Amy Adams & the Case for the Understated Actor

And the Oscar Goes to…

It happens every year.  Studios cram the final months with their splashiest films hoping for Oscar glory and the best performances rise to the top.  I just can’t help but feel this “best”performance concept is often confused with “biggest” or “loudest.”  This thought is reinforced by the aforementioned packing and the fact that many Oscar-winning actors more often seem to win for capital-A acting (a sweeping, bravura style of acting that is more astonishing than meaningful; see: Julianne Moore in Magnolia, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Mark Ruffalo in Acts 2-3 of The Normal Heart, Daniel Day-Lewis in everything).  This concept is one I’m admittedly stealing from Matthew Weiner in one of his post-Mad Men interviews, in which he notes on how the audience typically loves to see these kind of performances.  Unfortunately, many don’t realize how little emotional investment it takes to deliver many such “loud” performances–just the ability to be sensational.

The reason I generally disdain this kind of Acting largely has to do with my career choice. While a psychologist typically wears many hats, most days my job feels like putting puzzle pieces together of someone’s life into a picture that makes coherent sense, in light of their culture, past experiences, personality traits, presenting problems, and pathology.  This is why the most magical performances to me aren’t ones that involve screaming monologues, drastic weight gain/loss, sweeping biopics, prosthetics, or actors who insist on staying “in character” all the way to “that’s a wrap.” These “characters” rarely feel real to me—they feel like people that I know who put bedsheets over their heads and try to convince me that they’re really ghosts, while simultaneously reminding me that they’re not. The reality of people—as I’ve come to understand them through a science-practice lens—isn’t like this and, if acting is supposed to be a reflection of reality, I don’t understand why some of the most celebrated actors turn in performances that attempt to transcend it.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the minority in feeling this way; Weiner was right—capital-A shouting Acting tends to win unless you’re in the final season of a critically-acclaimed series or nearing retirement age. However, from the POV of someone who has spent too much time studying human behavior, I feel some of the greatest performances I’ve seen are the quietest; that is, when an actor is capable of making us believe that they’re someone else without telling us that they are through grandiose, dramatic gestures. This includes capturing all of the puzzle pieces of their characters’ cultures, past experiences, personality traits, presenting problems, and pathology, and subsequently bringing them to life.

Enter: Amy Adams


Amy Adams is known for her grounded, measured, realistic, and incredibly diverse performances that demand a complex understanding of the people she plays. She, like her Arrival partner-in-crime Renner, doesn’t steal the spotlight unless it’s demanded of her in the script. I can’t emphasize enough how much of an artistic genius Adams is to psychologists (or at least me, as a psychologist) in the way she not only makes sense of people invented on paper, but the subtle method in which she brings them to life. This practice spans across her whole career (Drop Dead Gorgeous and her catty spin on The Office included) and in-between her five-Oscar nominations (which, in case you forgot, include comedies, dramedies, and dramas like Junebug, Doubt, The Master, The Fighter, and American Hustle). I wouldn’t be surprised if she pulls a Prestige on all of us in 10 years and reveals she’s really had 20 identical sisters this entire time.

I’ll cap this praise off by stating I don’t think I’ve been more impressed with Adams than in Arrival, which may be unsurprising as it’s also one of her most understated performances to date. I haven’t even been able to write down a formal review of it yet, I just know that I either met another one of Adams’ identical sisters during that film or she showed me yet another person so real that I could easily see her sit across from me in a session. Apparently, Adams wears many hats too, and she just put on one of her most convincing, heartbreaking, and life-changing in a blockbuster movie about squid-looking aliens.

Sure enough, as the year ends and the Oscar campaigns and press narratives (ex. “The Comeback,” “The Foreigner,” “The IT Girl,””The Overdue”) come pouring in, I can hear the “loudness” increasing.  For the record, all the contenders are fabulous and deserving of praise (including the ones that definitely are contenders–Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Isabelle Hupper, Ruth Negga–and ones that aren’t but should be, including Anya Taylor Joy, Krisha Fairchild, and Royalty Hightower).  However, I can’t hold back my bias this year–for once, I wish the “Understated and Consistently Convincing” actress would win on a performance so subtle it would be easy to mistake for simple.


So in sum, consider this my FYC for Amy Adams this Oscar season. I know my voice makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, but if loudness is what wins, I’ll gladly join the Adams’ buzz.


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