On the resurgence of Scarlett Johansson
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.
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