The Scarlett Woman: Killer Looks and a Voice to Die For

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Scarlett Johansson at the European premiere of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," March 2014.Credit: AP

If someone were to make a 1940s-style detective movie today, the obvious choice to play the inevitable blonde who strolls into the private eye’s office, hat casting a shadow over half her face, would be Johansson. The actor – who can be seen currently starring in producer-director Luc Besson’s “Lucy” – has the look, lips and body of a ’40s starlet.

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” shouted Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), in one of the most memorable scenes from Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, “Sunset Boulevard.” Johansson most certainly has a face, and the audience often fails to consider the quality of her performance because of those features.

Yet consider Johansson’s performance in Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), when she was never seen in the film. She provided the voice of the operating system with which the protagonist (played by Joaquin Phoenix) fell in love. No movie star in the history of audio has had a voice quite like hers – both gentle and tempting. In Jonze’s film, we didn’t need to see her; just knowing it was her voice put the image of her face before our eyes, while we wondered what feminine image the film’s protagonist conjured up to go along with the voice.

As you can tell, I’m fond of Scarlett Johansson, who turns 30 this November and has already had a storied career. I first saw her in a minor role when she was 10, in Rob Reiner’s “North” (1994), but I have no memory of her from that film. Nor do I remember her in “Home Alone 3,” released in 1997, seven years after the original. I first remember her playing a young girl in Robert Redford’s drama “The Horse Whisperer” (1998), when she was 14. The fact that her first substantial role was in a film about horses connects her, in my mind, to Elizabeth Taylor, who became a star at the age of 12, playing a young girl learning to train a wild horse (in “National Velvet”).

Scarlett Johansson in 'Lucy.'

In any case, I can imagine Johansson in many of Taylor’s old roles: The young, rich girl tempting the lower-class boy in “A Place in the Sun”; or her role in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” where she plays a young woman suffering a breakdown after the bizarre death of her cousin. I can also see Johansson playing a truer-to-the-stage-original Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which was one of Taylor’s best-known roles.

Smart choices

The decisive year in Johansson’s career was 2003. Then, she played the lonely wife in Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo-set “Lost in Translation,” and the model for the famous Vermeer painting in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” directed by Peter Webber. These two very different films, which both garnered acclaim, attested to Johansson’s range as an actress and her huge onscreen presence. She went on to star in a series of Woody Allen offerings made in Europe: the London-set “Match Point” (2005) and “Scoop” (2006), and Catalonia-based “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008). She was good in each of these films, even though – like many actors in Allen’s films – she sometimes played her roles in the style of the writer-director himself.

As her career continued, she faced many of the same difficulties facing women in modern American film, though many of her subsequent choices were smart ones. She didn’t fall into the kind of romantic-comedy trap that marred the careers of the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl. Her ability to portray “normal” as well as strange women has helped her go back-and-forth from commercial to independent films. In Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (2006), which focused on a Hollywood murder during the 1940s, Johansson plays one of the more mysterious women in the film – and got closer than ever to the private-eye fantasy I described earlier – but the film flopped.

Scarlett Johansson in ad for SodaStream. Photo by Courtesy of SodaStream

Also in 2006, she starred in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” which depicted a competition between two magicians (it was her second film that year involving magic, following on from “Scoop”). In 2008, she returned to making period dramas, starring alongside Natalie Portman in Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” an adaptation of the Philippa Gregory novel. In 2010, she played Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) in “Iron Man 2,” a role she reprised in “The Avengers” (2012) and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014). She is set to reprise the role twice more, in next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and a standalone “Black Widow” movie.

Johansson has gone farther and farther away from playing typical female roles. Perhaps it’s the only way for an actress to survive these days, especially if she doesn’t want to star in romantic comedies or play someone’s wife. I admire her for it. In the same year she made “Her,” Johansson also played an object of obsession for the protagonist in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, “Don Jon.”

In this summer’s surprise box-office hit “Lucy” – an action film that’s most fun because its ridiculous plot is impossible to take seriously – Johansson plays a woman who gains psychic abilities and superpowers from accidentally ingesting a drug. From a “normal” woman, she is transformed into a superwoman who can kill her enemies in a tight dress and heels, pistol in hand.

Scarlett Johansson as a man-eating alien in 'Under the Skin.'

Johansson expresses her talent in this film by managing to maintain a determined, serious look throughout, yet all the while exhibiting an ironic awareness of herself and the situation (much like the film itself). It’s as if she’s winking to the audience.

Johansson is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Danish father. Although she’s been involved in recent controversy over promoting SodaStream (which has a factory beyond the Green Line), sometimes it seems to me that Johansson’s talent has yet to reach its limit, and yet to develop to its full potential. She intrigues me, but, better yet, she entertains me.

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