Sure, you could argue there are more important questions for us to grapple with as a culture. Such as: if wearing a mask could save someone’s life, why not just wear one for goodness sake? Or: what could the future of community-driven safety look like in practice? And also: good lord, can we finally just be done with the electoral college? And so many more. But there’s one question that I personally haven’t been able to shake. You know what it is… after all, it brought you here too.
Unbeknownst to them, our contenders began their 20+ year battle only a year apart. Amy Adams was first. A hard-working dinner theater ingenue who performed locally at the Chanhassan Dinner Theater for 3 years (!), Adams broke into feature films with a small role in 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous. (True story: a friend from high school played Tammy Curry in that movie, the contestant who gets blown up on a tractor.) Then, Amy spent 6 long years in the Hollywood meatgrinder doing single episodes of CW TV shows and filming promising pilots that never went anywhere – nearly giving up many times along the way – before she had her real break in the charming 2005 indie, Junebug, just after she turned 30.
Zoe Saldana’s rise was more gradual but started with a bang. A trained ballet dancer, Saldana shifted her focus toward theater in high school – and shortly after a talent agent noticed her in a NY Youth Theater performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she found herself cast in a supporting role in the now-beloved 2000 dance film Center Stage. From there it was mostly high school movies and bit parts until J.J. Abrams cast her as Lt. Uhura in the 2008 reboot of Star Trek, and the Zoe Saldana legacy as the SciFi/Fantasy superbabe who can do anything began.
So, they’re both great and we love them both. We don’t want to choose but we have to. So when you look at it from all sides – who is winning? Who is – ultimately – the better hard-working A-list leading lady? It’s time to settle this.
Round 1: Popularity
In round 1, contenders face off in two dimensions: lifetime box office draw and appearance in popular blockbusters and/or franchises.
Although better known for serious drama Academy Award-type fare, Adams is no stranger to the box office. She played first lady of comic book culture, the intrepid Lois Lane, with the kind of headstrong moxy a 21st century Lois deserves in three Zack Snyder DCEU films, starting with 2013’s Man of Steel.
Over her lifetime, Adams’ films have grossed over $5 billion dollars worldwide, which promotes her to rank #290 in the lifetime box office rankings for all actors.
|Blockbuster Score||3 / 5|
|Box Office Score||3 / 5|
She’s the queen of outer space! And also, of leading films to billions of dollars. First up was her role as genius badass linguist Lt. Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ three Star Trek reboot films, which together grossed $1.2B. Then Na’vi hero, Neytiri, in James Cameron’s Avatar ($2.3B), and of course, green-skinned goddess Gamora in four MCU films which broke all the records.
Her lifetime box office returns top $12 billion dollars; she is the 15th highest ranked actor and the 2nd highest ranked woman working in movies.
|Blockbuster Score||5 / 5|
|Box Office Score||5 / 5|
And the prom queen is…
Round 2: Coolness
In this round, we’ll look beyond base audience opinion and rate how cool each contender is based, of course, on the number of critically acclaimed (Metascore >65), small-budget (<$20M) films they have starred/appeared in, and the relative coolness of their regular collaborators.
Most of Adams’ small-budget films received positive reviews, but only two were truly critically acclaimed: Junebug, an indie with a strong 80 Metascore and Doubt, which is – by several accounts – a real punch in the face of a movie featuring several of the greatest actors of our time.
Although she’s working on a David O. Russell streak, Adams’ strongest collaborations are not with Directors, but with leading men: she’s been in three films each with Christian Bale and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not bad company, Amy!
|Cool Films Score||2 / 5|
|Collaborators Score||3 / 5|
She’s more of a blockbuster gal, but Saldana does have a couple films that pass the hipster muster: the 2017 Harry Potter wannabe I Kill Giants and Vampires vs. the Bronx, a 2020 Netflix film that sounds like Attack the Block but in New York and with vampires.
Zoe shines in collabs, though – and granted, Marvel gives her a boost here. She has been in 5 films with Bradley Cooper, and 3 each with Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Ruffalo.
|Cool Films Score||2 / 5|
|Collaborators Score||4 / 5|
The COOLEST is….
Saldana, by the skin of her teeth!
Round 3: Importance
In round three, contenders will be scored on the films they’ve starred in that have A) won important awards for best picture, acting, directing, or writing, and B) made an impact on the film industry. This second rating measures how much money each film made relative to its budget, influencing the types of movies that get made, distributed and promoted.
She comes out swinging! Adams won Independent Spirit and Sundance awards for her breakout performance in Junebug, and has since had starring or supporting roles in 5 prestige films, including American Hustle, The Fighter, and Her. Though she doesn’t have the statue on her mantle yet, it’s coming: Adams has been nominated for six Academy Awards. Watch your back, Meryl! (Sidebar: PTA’s The Master didn’t win ANY fancy awards!? I’m flabbergasted. It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.)
The economics of the artsy stuff Adams gravitates towards hasn’t yet ignited industry revolutions, but her killer chops are reliably good for business. On average, her films make back 1.8x their budget in profit.
|Prestige Score||5 / 5|
|Industry Bang Score||3 / 5|
Prestige is not Saldana’s strength–she hasn’t been in any major award-winning films. The closest she has gotten was probably her small role in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, which really tried to be Oscar bait but only got as far as winning Best Soundtrack at the GoldSpirit Awards, whatever that is. (I’m sure it’s great, congratulations.)
Saldana is a mover and shaker in the biz, though. Avatar made an intimidating 10x its budget back in profit. Although films rarely reach those kinds of heights, only one film Zoe has starred in has lost money in 20 years. On average, her films make back more than 2x their budget in profit.
|Prestige Score||0 / 5|
|Industry Bang Score||4 / 5|
And the most important is….
Round 4: Artistic Merit
In this round, we’ll put aside whether the films they’ve made are cool or popular or important and examine whether they’re actually any good… and will consider each contender’s range. Sure, anyone can do drama or comedy – but can you do a great horror movie? A historical period piece? A musical?
Amy dipped her toe into RomCom a couple times (Leap Year, The Wedding Date) but honestly, it didn’t go very well. Outside of ole’ reliable Drama, she’s had the most success in SciFi – most recently in Denis Villeneuve’s stunner Arrival, which earned an 81 Metascore.
My goodness she does Drama well though. The impressive Metascores of Arrival, American Hustle (90), and The Master (86) elevate what is already a solid track record of acclaim. Her average career Metascore is a very strong 68.
|Range Score||1 / 5|
|Critical Praise Score||5 / 5|
Obviously she has Fantasy/SciFi credits – we’ve covered that in depth (as has she). You may recall from the intro, though, that Zoe is also a trained ballet dancer. Her first role was in Center Stage, a dance movie if ever there was one. And that’s pretty much it for outsider genres.
Critical reviews for Saldana’s films are mixed: high points are Avatar (83) and Star Trek (82), low points are Crossroads (yup, with Britney Spears!) and Nina – which both earned a cringeworthy Metascore of 27. Her average is right in the middle: 59.
|Range Score||2 / 5|
|Critical Praise Score||3 / 5|
And the superior artist is… ADAMS.
Round 5: Let’s Get Personal
And now…. the all-important big final round question: who is a better person? You shouldn’t win the showdown if you’re a creep. That just wouldn’t be right.
Amy grew up poor, Mormon, and military as the middle child of 7 (!) siblings, and her rise to the A-list was a journey of banal, embarrassing, physically painful and at times soul-crushing hard work. From Hooters waitress to dinner theater to abandoned sitcom pilots, she spent 11 years in the grind. She has been partnered up with visual/sound artist Darren Le Gallo for 18 years, with whom she has a daughter.
She’s not publicly politically active which, though kind of a bummer, is consistent with her general commitment to keep herself and her family out of the limelight, apart from her work. Her philanthropy supports kids, education, and healthcare/basic needs. I would totally have her over for dinner.
|Good Person Score||4 / 5|
Saldana grew up in Queens – though after her father died tragically in an accident when she was 9, her Mom moved their family to the Dominican for a number of years. She had two serious relationships – one with Bradley Cooper – before marrying her husband, Italian artist Marco Perego. They have three kids.
Saldana is an outspoken activist, using her personal social media accounts (7.3 million followers!) to advocate for voting rights, BLM, justice for people abused in detention centers at the border, and other worthy causes. Her philanthopy is focused on lefty politics, microfinancing, suicide prevention, GOTV and support for the homeless – and she also co-founded Bese, a new media platform focusing on cultural inclusivity and “celebrating the untold stories of today’s changing America.” She’s a boss.
|Good Person Score||5 / 5|
And the person who I trust most to tell me if I have something in my teeth is…..
So who won?
|Popularity||6 / 10|
|Coolness||5 / 10|
|Importance||8 / 10|
|Artistic Merit||6 / 10|
|Good Person||4 / 5|
|TOTAL||29 / 45|
|AVERAGE||3.2 / 5|
|Popularity||10 / 10|
|Coolness||6 / 10|
|Importance||4 / 10|
|Artistic Merit||5 / 10|
|Good Person||5 / 5|
|TOTAL||30 / 45|
|AVERAGE||3.3 / 5|
Zoe Saldana WINS!
These two titans are extremely evenly matched, but in the end, the Queen of Outer Space reigns. But let’s be honest, we love them both.