Though the category remains highly flexible, Amy Adams's position in the Best Supporting Actress race had been looking the tiniest bit precarious until recently. Though critically beloved, "The Master" is clearly not a consensus favorite, while her excellent work in it risks getting sidelined -- not just because of her more prominently featured male co-stars, but because the chilly tenor of her performance as a slyly controlling kewpie-doll wife doesn't invite the same emotional response as some of her chief rivals.

Things are looking up, though. A win from the Los Angeles critics, who came through for "The Master" in a big way, is a major boost, and today it was announced that Adams will receive the Cinema Vanguard Award at next month's Santa Barbara International Film Festival -- which, like Palm Springs, is a useful stop on the Oscar campaign trail.

The award, which will be presented to Adams at a tribute evening on January 31, is described by the festival as recognizing actors who "forge [their] own path, taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film." Three-time Oscar nominee Adams has certainly evolved into an interesting risk-taker since otherwise contrasting work in the likes of "Junebug," "Doubt" and "Enchanted" threatened to pigeonhole her in casting directors' minds as the go-to girl for guileless naifs.

While "Sunshine Cleaning" and, in particular, "The Fighter" allowed the actress to show her slightly more womanly, hard-bitten side, her performance in "The Master" eerily balances the two modes, her prim porcelain veneer masking a vicious streak of political and sexual dominance.

In terms of both the character and the performance, Adams was my chief takeaway from a second viewing of the film: she may well be the "master" of the title. It may not be her best performance (that title, I think, still goes to "Junebug," for which she should have won the Oscar first time out), but it's arguably her most daring. Add to that her riotously scuzzy extended cameo in "On the Road," and Santa Barbara has chosen the right year to honor her for branching out.

SBIFF chief Roger Durling had this to say: “Amy Adams is one of the gutsiest and most gifted actors working today.  She embodies what the Cinema Vanguard Award is all about, and after her performance in 'The Master,' the time has come to recognize her talent and versatility.”  

Previous Vanguard winners, incidentally, include Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Nicole Kidman, Peter Sarsgaard, Christoph Waltz, Stanley Tucci, Vera Farmiga, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling -- not exactly bad company to be in. The SBIFF runs from January 24 to February 3.