On the resurgence of Scarlett Johansson

Posted by · 7:20 pm · September 12th, 2013

Fun fact: it’s 10 years ago to the day that Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” went on limited release in Los Angeles, mere days after doing the Venice-Telluride-Toronto stretch that was a rarer feat for prestige films then than it is now. In some respects, it does feel that long since we first laid eyes on Coppola’s woozy Tokyo kinda-love story, which is not to say it doesn’t hold up rather beautifully. The director’s three subsequent films, albeit variations on a consistent theme, exhibit an arc of wearied, cooled maturity, while indie film festivals are still awash with atmospheric imitators that may or may not know the source of Coppola’s own cribbing. 

What doesn’t feel a decade old, however, is the accompanying avalanche of Next Big Thing hype for one Scarlett Johansson, then just 18 years of age. The New Yorker with the odd, implacable gaze hadn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Two years before, she’d made attentive critics’ one-to-watch lists with droll, gangly turns in “Ghost World” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”; five years earlier than that, she’d scored a precocious Best Actress nod at the Independent Spirit Awards for her turn as a pre-teen runaway in “Manny and Lo.”

From “The Horse Whisperer” to “Eight Legged Freaks,” then, Hollywood had seemingly been ready for the talented teen for some time. The media, however, hadn’t, and proceeded to shower such superlatives on Johansson and her very fine (and very fine-textured) performances in “Lost in Translation” and another fall festival discovery, “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” that one began to fear for the girl. Excellent though she was as, respectively, a lonely, prematurely married modern hipster and Johannes Vermeer’s 17th-century working-class muse, both roles demanded a similarly taciturn, liquid-eyed intensity of her. There was ample reason to suspect we hadn’t seen the half of what she could do. 

SAG and the Academy, perhaps distracted by a confusing campaign to pass off Johansson as a supporting actress in “Translation” and thereby nab her twin nominations, decided they’d wait to see that undiscovered half, nominating her for neither film. (They’re still waiting; 10 years on, she remains unnominated.) They were among the very few not fuelling the hype. The Golden Globes nominated her in both the drama and comedy fields, while the BAFTAs — and it’s funny how swiftly this gets forgotten — handed her their Best Actress award for Coppola’s film, beating out, among others, herself for “Earring.” Sundry magazine covers were an additional prize.

Having crowned its new princess, the industry then, as is its wont, ran almost immediately out of ideas of what do with her. The next two years brought misconceived vehicles of various shapes and sizes — small and creaky (“A Good Woman”), medium and thankless (“In Good Company”) and large and boneheaded (“The Island”) — none of which even permitted Johansson to be bad in compelling ways. The Globe voters, sticking doggedly to the narrative, tossed her another nomination for the limp indie “A Love Song for Bobby Long” — they might remain the largest group of people to have seen it.

Temporary respite came from the unpredictable figure of Woody Allen: his London-set moral thriller “Match Point” provoked a flushed, angry sexuality in the actress that her more demure breakthrough roles hadn’t, duly (and this time deservedly) landing her a fourth Globe nod. It was a welcome indication that the actress, in addition to looking at certain angles like an Old Hollywood bombshell, could act at certain angles like one too. While she assumed the mantle of Woody’s Muse, however, the director seemed less engaged by her later on, penning her pretty featureless characters in their follow-up collaborations “Scoop” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

If Woody lost interest, so, it seemed did most others: she made a pleasing femme fatale in  Brian De Palma’s undervalued “The Black Dahlia,” though she didn’t seem to have been directed so much as art-directed. And that was a higher point of a late-2000s run that peaked in respectability with a left-blank-for-your-message role in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” and bottomed out with such admittedly diverse calamities as “The Nanny Diaries,” “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Spirit.”

I know, newsflash: Hollywood has a dearth of intelligent, identifiably human roles to offer young actresses, even (or perhaps especially) one who meets its physical ideals as obligingly as Johansson. Yet it’s amazing how swiftly the counter-narrative set in across the internet that the woman couldn’t act; that the moody, impassive mien we were used to seeing from her marked the narrowness of her natural ability, not of what directors and their projects demanded of her. “You’re kidding, right?” came the response of several readers when, in 2009, I included Johansson’s name on a list of the 10 best actors under 30. It’s a standard backlash pattern: many of the same observers who perhaps glided too easily past her limitations following her 2003 breakthrough now seemed incapable of admitting any of her virtues. 

And yet slowly, and not without some hard graft, the tables began to turn once more for her. (Maybe any sliding actress needs to record an album of Tom Waits covers before things can get better. How about it, Ms. Zellweger?) Like many a Hollywood actor seeking to regain technique and credibility in one fell swoop, she headed to the stage, testing the waters with Off-Broadway fare before garnering warmly surprised reviews — and a Tony Award — for a 2010 revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” A few months later, she was a small but sparky presence as Black Widow in “Iron Man 2,” a gig that would see full fruition in 2012’s world-beating blockbuster “The Avengers” — an ensemble film in which, I’d venture, she’s best in show. It’s not Shakespeare, granted, and it’s not passing any Bechdel tests either, but as showcase paycheck roles go, it’s a clear step up from, oh, “The Island.”

As for a return to prestige fare, last year’s “Hitchcock” proved a bit of a false start — though her archly sexy take on Janet Leigh provided that embalmed film with one of its few flickering signs of life. This year, however, it’s fair to say the Scarlett Johansson Comeback has finally taken root, with a pair of sensational performances in two buzzy, risque festival hits that couldn’t come from more different planets, and a faceless but significant role in a third yet to come.

When reviewing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s smug sex comedy “Don Jon” (then titled “Don Jon’s Addiction”) at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I rather blandly singled out Johansson’s against-type performance as a bright spot. The further I get away from the film, however, the more Johansson’s performance as Gordon-Levitt’s gum-chewing, deceptively assured girlfriend Barbara seems a genuinely inspired comic turn.

The unapologetically broad New Joisey mannerisms — Drea DeMatteo’s tragic bimbo Adriana LaCerva from “The Sopranos” seems the obvious point of reference here — amuse on their own dead-on terms, but also bracket the character’s cunning intelligence and people-reading instincts, assets she takes care to reveal only when it suits her to do so. Likened for years to Marilyn Monroe by any number of film critics and fashion editors, Johansson cleverly plays her as a woman who knows the value of playing dumb. We have yet to see how “Don Jon” plays when it opens theatrically in two weeks’ time, but the Academy could do a lot worse than consider a Best Supporting Actress nod.

“Don Jon” is a rare role that finds the actress — even more so than in “Match Point,” now eight years ago — in full possession of her physicality. It’s that quality, if nothing else within the films themselves, that binds “Don Jon” to “Under the Skin,” Jonathan Glazer’s oblique sci-fi chiller. Johansson’s first excursion into heavy-duty art cinema might also have brought about her most enthralling performance to date: as an alien clueless about all aspects of human behavior save for the jellifying effect (first figuratively, then literally) she has on it, her performance fuses the stillness of her 2003 breakout turns to the brash, steaming sexual weaponry she picked up on later projects.

That this creative high-water mark arrives in the most radically polarizing film she has ever appeared in is all to the good in terms of publicity; super-cool US distributors A24 are sure to play up the film’s cultish potential (and the iconographic role Johansson plays within it) as they did “Spring Breakers” and James Franco earlier this year. On their own, either “Don Jon” or “Under the Skin” would represent a satisfying advance for an actress who has gone too long untested. Taken together — and with her crucial voice work in Spike Jonze’s “Her” set to land somewhere in between — they amount to an exciting mission statement from an actress regaining her capacity to surprise. It’s taken 10 years for her movies to agree, but perhaps Scarlett Johansson was the Next Big Thing all along.

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