It’s not Scarlett Johansson’s fault that I used to hate her. Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution, there was a fateful week in 2006 when I couldn’t go near a cinema without her face looming up in front of me. Here she was as a student journalist in Woody Allen’s Scoop! There she was as a girlfriend in Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia! And there she was again, a magician’s assistant, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige!
By the end of that week, I was sick of the sight of her, particularly as she was miscast in all three films, though in Scoop and The Black Dahlia (for which even the actress admitted she was “physically wrong”) she was far from being the only misguided casting choice. It was as though the Lords of Hollywood had decreed she was The Girl of the Moment, and thus had to play every female character that came along, whether or not she was suited to the role.
But there was something missing in her performances. In the hardboiled world of The Black Dahlia, she was like a schoolgirl modelling the contents of her grandma’s wardrobe. Was it the va-va-voom figure, the joyously pneumatic alternative to the usual stick-insect school of starlet? Or was it the voice – a husky femme fatale drawl which sounded as though she smoked 60 Chesterfields a day – that blinded film-makers to the fact that she was still girlish and jejune, without the life experience to give depth to those juicy roles they were bestowing on her? After all, they might have reasoned, she was already a veteran. She’d been acting in films since the age of nine.
Born in New York in 1984 to a Danish-born father and an Ashkenazi mother, Johansson made her screen debut in Rob Reiner’s disdainfully-received North. A few years later, Robert Redford, who directed and acted with her in The Horse Whisperer, famously declared that she was “13 going on 30.” The Coen brothers evidently agreed, casting her as the innocent-looking schoolgirl pianist whose lewd advances towards Billy Bob Thornton cause him to crash his car in The Man Who Wasn’t There. She was still a teenager, but you get the uncomfortable feeling that her directors were having to work hard to suppress their drooling.
But in 2001, fine as she was as Thora Birch’s best friend in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, it was Birch whom everyone was tipping for the brilliant future. Which just goes to prove William Goldman’s maxim that, when it comes to predictions about the movies, “nobody knows anything.”
Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s arthouse hit, changed everything. Johansson held her own opposite Bill Murray, but it helped that Coppola had cast her astutely, as a slightly naïve young wife, and created an indelible image with the film’s opening shot of the actress’s derrière in see-through knickers. Perhaps it also helped that her director was a woman only a decade older than she was, who had herself once been the victim of notorious miscasting, and who acknowledged there was a real person behind the sexpot exterior.
She gave a watchful performance as the painter’s model in Girl with a Pearl Earring, though the film was too hung up on its own painterly prettiness to care, but in Match Point, her first film with Allen (who described her as “sexually overwhelming”), she was cast as an impossible-to-play cartoon vamp who morphs overnight into a pathetic ninny, and Michael Bay’s The Island reinforced the impression there was less to her than met the eye.
After that 2006 ScarJo overdose, she was more interestingly cast as the less vampish of the sisters in the disappointingly bland The Other Boleyn Girl; upstaged by her Spanish co-stars (not hard, when they’re Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem) in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, the most tolerable of her three films with Allen; going straight from yoga class to swimming-pool without showering (a fitness club faux pas! not that the film notices) in the ensemble rom-com He’s Just Not That Into You.
And then… something happened. Scarlett Johansson became interesting.
Of course it was hard to resist her as Black Widow, cracking wise and kicking ass in skin-tight black leather in Iron Man 2 and Avengers Assemble – the latter film, especially, allowing her to shine amid a testosterone-heavy line-up and giving her some lovely moments of psychological oneupwomanship.
It’s possible that Marvel began to realise that she was as important to their superhero line-up as any of her male co-stars, since they gave her more to do in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: The Age of Ultron, though it’s symptomatic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we have yet to see a film called Black Widow, and that she has been largely ignored by the merchandising department, which continues to peddle the self-fulfilling prophecy that it’s only boys who collect superhero figurines, and they’re not interested in female ones.
Less remarked upon but perhaps more tellingly, in We Bought a Zoo she brought such unexpected depth to a bland girlfriend role it made you wish you were watching her story, not Matt Damon’s. Her sassy Janet Leigh was one of the highlights of Hitchcock, her brassy controlling Barbara is one of the best things about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s well-meaning Don Jon, and her extraordinary central performance in Jonathan Glazer’s controversial Under the Skin is clearly the work of an actress who is endlessly curious, a good sport, and willing to take risks in her career.
Perhaps it was her work in live theatre that gave her that extra oomph. She won a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play for her 2009 performance as Catherine in A View from the Bridge (“Ms Johansson melts into her character so thoroughly that her nimbus of celebrity disappears,” wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times), and in 2013 played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, again to good reviews.
Or was it hanging around with musicians in her recording career, which shows more evidence of good taste (one of her two albums was a collection of Tom Waits cover versions) than of singing ability? (Though I might add I would rather listen to her than to anything by Lilly Allen, Rihanna or Adele.) Might it have had something to do with her private life, about which I have little interest, though the internet informs us she was briefly married to Ryan Reynolds, and has dated Benicio del Toro (17 years her senior) and Black Dahlia co-star Josh Hartnett?
Or is it simply that the actress named by Esquire as “Sexiest Woman Alive” finally grew into the figure and voice for which she had previously been just a little too young? That voice especially – she’s such obvious casting as Samantha, the Siri-like operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her, it’s hardly surprising Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with it. She has already directed one short, and there’s talk of a feature directing debut, perhaps an adaptation of Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing.
If Marvel can’t or won’t provide her with the action vehicle she deserves, Luc Besson came close with Lucy, in which Johansson plays a young American traveller forced by Asian traffickers to be a drug mule, but accidentally transformed by the drugs in her system into a superpowered warrior who progressively sheds her human attributes en route to becoming a cosmic entity.
Johansson has the inhuman thing down pat (though arguably did it more interestingly in Under the Skin) but the phone call she makes to her mother at an early stage in her transformation is so affecting – and so much the emotional highlight of the movie – that one can’t help but regret her character wasn’t allowed to hang on to the diminishing shreds of her humanity a little longer.
Either way, one can’t help but be curious about her casting as the augmented-cybernetic Major Motoko Kusanagi in DreamWorks’ forthcoming live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell. It’s another example of Hollywood’s customary whitewashing of ethnic characters, of course, and there are plenty of Japanese actresses who could have played it, albeit none who are household names in anglophone territories.
But if we absolutely must have a white American in the role, who better than Johansson.
I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in November 2013. It has since been extensively rewritten and updated.