When I was 12 years old, I remember killing time in my grandmother’s basement watching a DVD for the only R-rated movie I could find, Junebug. I’ll never forget witnessing the hilarious and effervescent performance by that one redheaded actress from Catch Me If You Can. And I was delighted when her star continued to rise thereafter, racking up six Oscar nominations — and, tragically, no wins. There were her performances in Enchanted and The Fighter and Doubt and The Master. Fifteen years later, I still find myself periodically revisiting Junebug to watch Amy Adams’s devastating climactic scene and to remind myself what good acting looks like. Sure, there are some missteps in her career (we’re just gonna breeze past Big Eyes and all things Julie from Julie & Julia), but, by and large, I learned that you could depend on Adams to deliver a compelling performance, one grounded in reality and emotional vulnerability, no matter the material or genre.
That’s why under no circumstances whatsoever, for the love of all that is good on God’s green earth, can my favorite zero-time Academy Award–winning actress Amy Adams secure an Oscar for her performance as Bev Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.
“But, Chris,” you say, “surely if you think Amy Adams is such a fine actress, you’d want her to be recognized and celebrated by a jury of her peers?” And you’d be right. Of course I want Amy Adams to win the highest honor that the film industry has to offer and join the ranks of her redheaded sisters Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Julia Roberts. But absolutely not like this. Adams winning an Oscar for her work in Hillbilly Elegy would be worse than her never wining an Oscar at all. And for those who’ve already seen the film ahead of its Netflix premiere on November 24, this is not a controversial opinion.
Hillbilly Elegy is currently sitting pretty on Rotten Tomatoes with a galling 29 percent fresh rating, and even this score feels a little high, given that the movie’s storytelling proceeds with the precision of a sledge hammer. But my particular beef isn’t with the (many) mistakes director Ron Howard made while adapting J.D. Vance’s autobiography about going from the Rust Belt to Yale Law School and back again. This is about Amy Adams’s performance as the protagonist’s well-intentioned but drug-addicted mother, Bev Vance.
Adams truly does the absolute most with the role given to her, wildly careening between portraying a struggling parent just doing her best to raise two kids on her own to depicting the horrors of an abusive mother, daughter, and partner at a mere moment’s notice. It’s an exhausting performance that clumsily hammers away at all the traumatic notes you’d expect from someone trying to win an Oscar, down to the intentionally unglamorous wig and makeup. But it’s not the sheer amount of capital-A Acting that Adams doles out in Hillbilly Elegy that’s the problem. Rather, it’s the lack of something, anything, that you’d associate with the prototypical Amy Adams performance. Any actress could deliver Bev’s exaggerated lines and gestures as they were likely written in the script, which is perhaps why Adams’s choices — every scream uttered, insult hurled, unsteady hand outstretched — feel rote and uninspired. You could see them coming from a mile away.
One particularly egregious moment occurs about an hour into the film, when Bev refuses to enter a treatment center for her heroin addiction after J.D. goes to great lengths to get her admitted. In a heated argument, J.D., played by Gabriel Basso, yells at his mother for leaching off their grandmother, Glenn Close’s Maw-Maw, who served as J.D.’s primary caregiver for a time and with whom Bev has an extremely fraught relationship. “Yeah. Like she was a goddamn saint?” Adams spits back, adding a sarcastic shrug, as if to shout, Um, no she wasn’t, dipshit. It’s an unnecessary exclamation point tacked on to the end of an emotional beat that’s been written out in all caps and underlined with red ink. Do Maw-Maw and Bev maintain a complicated and tenuous bond, influenced by generational trauma and the conditions of their shared experience with poverty? Um, no shit, Sherlock!
If you look back at some of Amy Adams’s best work, it’s the lack of exclamation points that leaves the biggest impression. Think back to her turn as tough Southie track star Charlene in The Fighter, and the effortless, understated grit she brought to the role. Or the linguist Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival, quietly grieving and searching for connection. Or even her most recent Emmy-nominated run as a self-harming journalist in the miniseries Sharp Objects, battling demons within and without. Adams was grounded, subtle, surprising. Her banal and cliché performance as Bev Vance in Hillbilly Elegy is the antithesis of her best work.
In such a fraught year for movies, I can see how an Academy member might think that this is the perfect time to give a trophy to Adams. It’s a “weird year” and she’s “worked so hard for it,” they’ll say at their (virtual) luncheons
at the Beverly Wilshire behind closed doors in various light-filled Los Angeles kitchens projected in a blinding grid on Zoom. To any AMPAS cardholders reading this, I beseech thee: Don’t vote for Amy Adams. This is not her Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant moment. This is not her Julianne Moore in Still Alice moment. This is not her Charlize Theron transforms into Aileen Wuornos for Monster moment. Let’s not tarnish this woman’s legacy by giving her a statue for one of her worst performances, like we did with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. It is not her turn. It is not her time.
And to the Adams-hive, our day will come! Our girl will pull through and win a statue for acting in something that’s worthy of her many talents, that highlights what she does best: astound us with the depth of her humanity. But this year, let’s not leave it to “Beaver” — the pet name Adams gave her Bev Vance wig; if I have to know it, you do, too — let’s leave it to someone else. Anyone else. Hey, if the Academy wants to give it to Glenn, by all means go ahead. I don’t have a dog in that fight.