Adams on Reel Women: A tale of five actresses — Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Sally Field, Helen Hunt, and Nicole Kidman

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

For leading ladies, a supporting role can prove an actress's range -- and validate her talents -- without requiring her to carry a movie's box-office load. The Golden Globes' list of five supporting actress nominees -- Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Sally Field, Helen Hunt, and Nicole Kidman -- offers insight into the transformative power of supporting roles for actresses trying to repackage their onscreen images.

Amy Adams: From fetching Disney princess to confident adult

Adams, 38, came naturally to America's sweetheart roles, like her people-pleasing fairy-tale Princess Giselle in "Enchanted," and her darling and dashing Amelia Earhart in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." But there are a lot of shades of gray to this woman, something she proved last year as the tough Boston cookie Charlene Fleming, capable of a hair-pulling fight in "The Fighter," also Globe- and Oscar-nominated. Adams returns this year for a key performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" as Peggy Dodd, the pregnant power behind the throne to Philip Seymour Hoffman's cult leader. While the movie itself has slid from its early high as a double award winner at the Venice Film Festival, the performances have considerable awards traction. At the Toronto International Film Festival, the three-time Oscar nominee told me: "It's funny that you mentioned Amelia Earhart earlier, because that was the first time that I can remember playing a character that was confident. Afterwards, I said to my agent, I loved playing a confident character -- let's look for more."

[Related: Yahoo! Exclusive: Emma Thompson talks to our Thelma Adams about being "Brave," parenting tips, and the benefits of being a Mama Bear]

Anne Hathaway: From the diary of a princess to a tragic singing harlot

Hathaway, 30, grew up onscreen, charming countless generations of little girls who wanted to be princesses as reluctant Manhattan teen Mia Thermopolis, who discovers she's royalty in "The Princess Diaries." Hathaway followed with the title character in "Ella Enchanted" and the sequel "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement." She moved forward as the heroine of "The Devil Wears Prada," playing another good girl caught in forces beyond her control. Ever since, she's been trying to prove that she's not just the soapy, sudsy, squeaky American beauty next door. "Rachel Getting Married" is my personal favorite among the movies through which she tried to scrap that old image. In this one, she played a young woman who gets out of rehab for her sister's nuptials and struggles to stay sober at the champagne-fueled event while remaining truthful to herself. It's a great little-sister part, exquisitely written by Sidney Lumet's talented daughter Jenny. Hathaway bared even more flesh with Jake Gyllenhaal in "Love and Other Drugs," and then did the body-builder thing to embody the prickly feline femme fatale Selina (aka Catwoman) in "The Dark Knight Rises." But the transformation is complete with Hathaway's singing sister of the street, Fantine. The role has earned Hathaway a Golden Globe nod, and made her an Oscar front-runner. "I took a realistic approach," Hathaway told me recently. "I didn't want the tears to be broad. I went very deep into my research about sexual slavery and the psychological toll it takes on those women." Hathaway used her recent supporting parts to transition to the darker, more demanding roles she craves.

Sally Field: From surfer sweetheart Gidget to presidential spouse Mary Todd Lincoln

Field, 66, has oscillated between television and movies over a 40-plus-year career. She began with "Gidget" and "The Singing Nun." Over decades, she matured into her Oscar-winning roles as the title character in "Norma Rae" and then as Edna Spalding in "Places in the Heart," as well as notable TV roles in "ER" and "Brothers & Sisters." Her trademark sound bite at the 1984 Oscars -- "You like me, you really like me" -- is ironic because she has long played on her contemporary likability, which has sometimes curdled into a neurotic desire to be liked. But there's more to the much-parodied quote than just popularity: "I haven't had an orthodox career, and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect." There could be nothing more respectable than her hellcat in a hoop skirt in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Field fought for the role as the president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. She is as bristly and combustible and histrionic as her onscreen husband is measured and charming in an offbeat and occasionally off-color way. Sally: You earned our respect a long time ago, but here's to your efforts to do a role as serious as Spielberg himself.

Helen Hunt: From cuddly TV comedian to breast-bearing sexual surrogate

Hunt, 49, has come a long way from the healthy blonde-next-door of her TV hit "Mad About You" and the romantic comedies "What Women Want" and "As Good as It Gets," for which she won an Academy Award in 1998. The challenge after a long Hollywood career on both the big and small screens is remaining relevant. In the Sundance crowd-pleaser, "The Sessions," which won her a Golden Globe nomination en route to a possible Oscar nom, Hunt bases her role on the real-life sexual surrogate that helped polio-crippled journalist Mark O'Brien (played by fellow nominee John Hawkes) ease his way out of virginity. Battling Hollywood ageism, Hunt goes full frontal at nearly 50 in a way that has become a rite of passage for mature actresses. Remember when Meryl Streep popped her bra in "Adaptation?" Hunt, despite being tremendously fit, does seem a little awkward in her own skin in "The Sessions," and yet this kind of nudity by previous award winners is often perceived as brave. And that's definitely the direction that Hunt craves for her career.

Nicole Kidman: From sexy Aussie leading lady to Southern-fried, killer-obsessed Charlotte Bless

Kidman, 45, crossed over from Australian starlet to international star in the thriller "Dead Calm," and soon found her alliance with Tom Cruise magnifying her position as desirable leading lady. Kidman could have slid on her looks and her stellar connections, but that's never been her thing. She displayed a quirky side that her supermodel elegance couldn't hide: Consider her darkly comic turn as husband killer and corruptor of teenagers in Gus Van Sant's transgressive comedy "To Die For." Cue a Golden Globe win in 1996. Sure, she got her Academy Award for her suicidal literary goddess with a prosthetic nose, Virginia Woolf, in "The Hours," a bit of the BBC on the big screen. But, as she told me recently, "As an actor, I really want to go to different places artistically." And that desire defines her role as Charlotte Bless, a tawdry, bottle-tanned Southern floozy with a yen for men behind bars in Lee Daniels's "The Paperboy." The critical pans and box-office disappointment have not kept Kidman from defending her performance. "As I get older," she said, "my barometer for what I consider daring gets broader. It's not about doing something to be shocking. I found this woman fascinating."

See the trailer for 'The Paperboy':