Passing prettiness

Posted by · 4:04 pm · June 7th, 2009

Amy Adams As I’ve mentioned before, David Thomson’s trademark star profiles can exert a kind of car-crash fascination these days, the result of a once invaluable critic giving in to his shallowest impulses. Flashes of insight still show through on occasion, but the navel-gazing (and often inappropriate fawning) of his pieces can be hard to take.

One of the things that has always distinguished Thomson’s analysis of actors is his preoccupation with physicality. At his best, this manifests itself as artful articulation of the intangibles of screen presence. At his worst, this tilts into ‘dirty old man’ territory, as in his repulsive “biography” of Nicole Kidman, in which he waxes lyrical over her breasts and pubic hair.

This week, the object of his physical scrutiny is Amy Adams, and this time, his gaze is a lot less admiring:

If Adams is a star now, she had better make the most of it. This may sound harsh, but she has the kind of look that could shift from trifle to pudding by the time she is 40. You may rise up in wrath and say that a critic is not supposed to make personal remarks about an actor’s appearance – but if you really take away that appearance, there is precious little to talk about in acting.

Ms Adams is where she is now because of a kind of passing prettiness that carries no threat. By contrast, Reese Witherspoon, Emily Blunt and Natalie Portman all carry the promise of intelligence, character and something to say that will trouble many men and the kind of society that relishes passive, pretty girls. That a movie career can still be made out of meek sweetness is a measure of how little progress we have made.

This extract neatly outlines the strengths and weaknesses of latter-day Thomson: there’s actually a taste of an intelligent, if provocative, critique here of audience-star relationships and Hollywood’s own gender reservations, but the bloody-minded perversity of his “appearance is all” argument rather undoes his good work.

Anyway, in decrying Adams’ predilection for wide-eyed naif roles, Thomson joins an increasingly loud chorus, though he does her (and his argument) a disservice by writing off the actress’s personal best, her lonely Southern chatterbox Ashley in “Junebug,” in a single sentence. It increasingly annoys me how, in the wake of Adams’ subsequent roles, critics now tend to paint this extraordinary characterisation with the same brush as they do “Enchanted” or even “Doubt.”

Ashley may be sweet-natured, but she’s a considerably complex creation, masking years of disappointment and diminished self-esteem behind an effortfully sunny facade. Much like Sally Hawkins’ Poppy in last year’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Ashley uses good cheer as a coping mechanism. That’s why critics and awards voters flipped for the performance back in 2005, and that’s why it remains the best showcase Adams has had to date.

At this stage, a similarly layered reworking of her wholesome screen persona would probably be too subtle a shift to silence the doubters. To do that, she’d probably need to do a complete 180 in terms of role, project and target audience — something akin to what Meg Ryan attempted in “In the Cut.” (Not that it helped her any, fascinating performance notwithstanding.)

But this is where Thomson’s point rings true: Hollywood doesn’t always reward female superstars for adventurousness. The media backlash against Nicole Kidman in recent years is plain evidence of that. Julia Roberts is another case in point: adored and rewarded for years for playing variations of her plucky girl-next-door chutzpah, she churns out the coldest, sexiest and, ultimately, finest work of her career in 2004’s “Closer” … and nobody seemed to care. As an actress, Amy Adams should be pushing the boat out further than the likes of “Julie & Julia”; as a star, she’s probably fine right where is.

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21 responses so far

  • 1 6-07-2009 at 4:30 pm

    head_wizard said...

    He does have some good points I would love to see a darker Adams character(better that Sunshine Cleaning please) But that all she has is her looks is an insult to her work in Junebug and even Doubt.

  • 2 6-07-2009 at 4:41 pm

    Silencio said...


  • 3 6-07-2009 at 5:30 pm

    red_wine said...

    Thats the first photo where I thought Adams is looking hot. But I actually agree with the essence of what Thompson is trying to say. Adams seems so ridiculously over-achieving, nonthreatening mild prettiness is exactly how I would classify her.

    I admittedly haven’t seen Junebug but christ her role in Doubt? If such a functional unremarkable performance can be Oscar nominated, even extras should be up for Oscar consideration.

  • 4 6-07-2009 at 6:12 pm

    Jim said...

    I also have a problem with Adams playing the same role over and over again but I’m thinking, what if she can’t do anything else? Why not keep doing the same thing? If I get tired I can stop watching her movies (although if she plays in movies like Doubt, I’ll have to watch her). Perhaps we should all accept the fact that not every actor can be Meryl Streep. Some actors are one thing (femme-fatale, victim, bad guy etc). They really have every right to be what they are.

  • 5 6-07-2009 at 6:14 pm

    Jim said...

    Oh, and I agree with Guy on Julia Roberts’ Closer performance. Although her Mona Lisa performance was also not as light as usually I think.

  • 6 6-07-2009 at 6:32 pm

    JR said...

    Speaking of physicality, I think much of the Kidman backlash is due to her increasing alien appearance and odd role choices. Yes, she’s done some “adventurous” work (“Fur”?) but there’s also “Stepford Wives,” “Bewitched” and, last and least, “Australia.” After seeing that, I truly feared that her gift and evaporated with her natural beauty. (How I mourn that brilliant young woman in “To Die For”…)

    As for Adams, I think she’s done a disservice. Her performance in “Enchanted” – bringing a cartoon to life – could have been a disaster. I’d also mention her wonderful screwball work in “Miss Pettigrew.” She brings great heart to roles that otherwise could fall into cliche or worse. Sure, I’d love to see her in more dramatic work, but at least she’s making savvy choices and working. I wonder if she’s even being offered them? They’re few and far between and probably are first offered to Blanchett/Winslet, even Swank and Jolie. Maybe Clint Eastwood will find a great role for her?

  • 7 6-07-2009 at 8:08 pm

    jason dennis said...

    even if his point wasn’t bullshit

    um… amy adams DOES look smart

    reese witherspoon DOES NOT

  • 8 6-07-2009 at 10:58 pm

    JP said...

    I think Adams is being highly under-rated. Her work in Junebug was brilliant and she really captured the Princess in Enchanted very well. She is not a beautiful actress, but she is pretty and she has some smart comedic timing and the gift of connecting with the audience.

    As for the Kidman bashing…I still don’t get the need to vilify her for her work in Australia. She played the over-the-top and uptight Lady Ashley with some remarkable flair. The self-aware film was old-fashioned melodrama and she channelled her inner Deborah Kerr very capably.

  • 9 6-07-2009 at 11:07 pm

    Davidraider88 said...

    Wasn’t Kidman essentially playing the same role in Cold Mountain and Australia?

  • 10 6-07-2009 at 11:18 pm

    Alec said...

    Hardly. Manohla Dargis captures the impressive nature of her Australia performance in her review of the film:

    “Although Ms. Kidman and Mr. Jackman are initially riffing on Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s prickly courtship in “The African Queen” — later, as they heat up, they slip into a sexier Scarlett-and-Rhett dynamic — only Ms. Kidman really embraces the more comic and potentially embarrassing aspects of her role, giving herself over to Mr. Luhrmann and his occasionally cruel camera with a pronounced lack of vanity.

    Though looking bad (or at least less than perfect) on camera is a particular form of vanity for actors, Ms. Kidman has in recent years generally erred on the side of physical perfection, sometimes to the detriment of her performances. But she’s wonderfully and fully expressive here, from wince-worthy start to heartbreaking finish, whether she’s wrinkling her nose in mock disgust or rushing across a dusty field, her arms pumping so wildly that it’s a wonder well water doesn’t spring from her mouth. It’s a ludicrous role — not long after priming her pump, the barren widow turns into a veritable fertility goddess — but she rides Sarah’s and the story’s ups and downs with ease. Mr. Jackman gives the movie oomph; Ms. Kidman gives it a performance.

    More than anything else in the film, Nullah included, Ms. Kidman tethers “Australia” to the world of human feeling and brings Mr. Luhrmann’s outrageous flights of fancy down to earth. “

  • 11 6-08-2009 at 1:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    red_wine: You really need to see “Junebug,” and not just for Adams. One of 2005’s best films.

    Jim: What I’m saying is that I don’t think Adams is exactly playing the same role over and over again. Her performances are commonly rooted in a good-girl persona, but she plays variations on that quite cleverly. I think she has enough nuance as an actress to surprise many people at some point.

    Alec: I’m 100% with Dargis there — some people might not have liked the heightened throwback style Kidman was going for in “Australia,” but I think more simply didn’t get it. Not her best work by a long shot, but a perfectly respectable effort all the same.

  • 12 6-08-2009 at 1:30 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I absolutely adore Amy Adams, she’s probably one of two or three of my favorite actresses at the moment. She completely blew me away in “Enchanted” and I think she has both the brains and the looks. I don’t care what anyone else may think, but this slander is just horrible.

  • 13 6-08-2009 at 7:58 am

    Mr. Milich said...

    Amy Adams played a rich girl slut on That ’70s Show…

  • 14 6-08-2009 at 8:12 am

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    The reality in Hollywood is after 40 an actress is looked at differently and some almost vanish. Look at Meg Ryan (some horrible plastic surgery) and Renee Russo. Ryan is doing films that go straight to DVD and Russo-She worked steady for a decade and then gone. Make the most of it while you can.


  • 15 6-08-2009 at 8:57 am

    John said...

    Gotta say: I think Amy Adams, meek, pretty, or not, has more acting talent in her pinky than most other actresses out there.

    And Kidman is completely different in ‘Cold Mountain’ from ‘Australia’. I think both performances were solid. But she’s obviously put forth deeper work.

  • 16 6-08-2009 at 9:04 am

    Sean said...

    She was also very effective in her brief cameo work as Cousin Beth in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. She plays cold and she does it very, very well.

  • 17 6-08-2009 at 12:15 pm

    The Dude said...

    I think the arguments on Adams’ prettiness are some sort of absurd (she doesn’t look smart like Natalie Portman or Emily Blunt? Explain!). But her acting choices bring up a valid point…each of her roles have some unmistakable similarities (I saw much of her Junebug character in Enchanted and Doubt). I’d like to see her stretch herself…go for a darker role, something angry, maybe even something like a villain. Then we can see what she’s truly got cookin’.

  • 18 6-08-2009 at 1:51 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    One of the worst things an actor can do is attempt to reinvent the wheel with each new character they play (Christian Bale use to do this but he doesn’t anymore). I like that she’s natural when playing variations on the familar.

  • 19 6-08-2009 at 2:30 pm

    BerkeleyGirl said...

    I’m thrilled to see so much love for Amy Adams! My guess is that her dramatic turn will come. She’s certainly making savvy choices. I was groaning at the prospect of the Night in the Museum sequel, but the critics again loved her Amelia Earhart.

    As for Kidman, I’d say that she’s adopted a certain physical look for each film since Cold Mountain – absolute physical perception. In that film, I found it distracting – the perfect brows, the exquisitely made-up skin. Sure, she was the dream girl, but her presence wasn’t of a piece with the otherwise gorgeously grimy film. Natalie Portman’s small scene was the one I played over and over. (She also had far better chemistry with Law.) How I wished that she’d been cast in Kidman’s role – and Jenna Malone in Zellweger’s. Yes, it’s harder for actresses – esp. over 40 – but must they muss so much with nature? Michelle Pfeiffer is more gorgeous than ever.

    Thing is, I want to really love Nicole, but she’s making it hard for me. Maybe she needs to go back to her red mane? I watch “To Die For” and wonder where that glorious, brilliant, funny actor went – and fear she’s gone forever.

  • 20 6-08-2009 at 3:14 pm

    JC said...

    Adams is being a bit typecast right now, but I sense a thoughtfulness and intelligence behind most of her work that suggests she’ll get good character roles for years to come.

    She was strong and nuanced in Junebug, amusing in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and totally convincing as a real-world representation of a melodramatic cartoon character in Enchanted (she completely sold it).

    And while we’re mentioning TV guest appearances (such as her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and That 70s Show), she was also in some Season 1 and 2 episodes of The Office (US) as Jim’s (John Krasinksi’s) girlfriend…more reserved there, as well.

  • 21 6-10-2009 at 11:34 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Thomson is a disgrace.