To be a Hollywood superstar in 2017 means donning a figure-sucking latex suit and flying through the air as a comic book superhero. As the highest grossing actress of all time, Scarlett Johansson has done just that, with recent roles including the Black Widow in the Avengers franchise and a cyborg law enforcer in this year’s manga-based Ghost in the Shell. But it’s Johansson’s quieter and more thoughtful roles that have built her reputation and taken her from promising child and teen star (Manny & Lo, 1996, and The Horse Whisperer, 1998) to charismatic ingénue (Ghost World, 2001, Lost in Translation, 2003) and regular Woody Allen sex symbol (Match Point, 2005, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008).
Whatever one thinks about such crude polls, Johansson is regularly voted one of the world’s sexiest women, and it’s impossible to ignore her physical beauty and global sex symbol status. Flawless skin, full lips and exaggerated curves are nothing new in Hollywood, but Johansson also brings intelligence, maturity and poise – a dreamy composure that was evident even in her earliest roles. As a teen femme fatale she effortlessly seduced Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), and as a sensitive but bored young wife (she was 18 playing 25) in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, she matched and fully met Bill Murray’s brilliant deadpan portrait of a disaffected middle-aged man stranded in a Japanese hotel.
Johansson’s roles often explore the idea of her appearance being separate from – or of inferior importance to – her identity, or essence. In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Johansson’s mere voice (that husky, sexy voice!) was enough to conjure a compelling computer-generated girlfriend for Joaquin Phoenix. In Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (2013), Johansson again plays a girlfriend, but this time, a full-blooded, New Jersey-accented woman who must compete with her boyfriend’s addiction to the virtual thrills of pornography.
This idea of a soul, embodied in flesh, but transcending and sometimes conflicting with its contours, is a recurrent theme to look out for in Scarlett Johansson’s work.
Here are four diverse Scarlett Johansson performances ready for you to watch now at SBS On Demand (click the images to watch each film in full).
Under the Skin
In this mysterious and mesmerising sci-fi horror film by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) Johansson appears as a beautiful young woman driving a van around Scotland and picking up strange men. With a clipped British accent, black wig and rouged lips, she seems to be every hitchhiker’s dream – but she’s an alien in human garb, and what she does with the men back at her deserted warehouse is something strange, creepy and entirely otherworldly. Later, a tender encounter with a disfigured man awakens her curiosity and compassion, and she starts to stray from her mission. Johansson is perfectly cast as a creature discovering the limits of human femininity.
Loosely adapted from Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Under the Skin is a film that’s deeply disturbing but also fascinating. It never quite spells out the solution to its mystery, and while there is some graphic nudity and cold violence, it’s more poetic than explicit. A reverberating atonal sound design and entrancing, hypnotic music (composed by Mica Levi) help to create a mood that’s a universe away from your average serial killer thriller.
Girl with a Pearl Earring
Despite her scrubbed face and bleached eyebrows, Johansson’s natural, luminous but almost plain beauty has never been as well showcased as it was in this sumptuous period drama about an imagined encounter between 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and the subject of his famed painting, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Johansson plays Griet, the wide-eyed maid employed to help the painter’s perpetually pregnant wife (a wonderful Essie Davis). Griet is supposed to cook and look after the six children, but tensions arise when the painter himself develops an interest in her and asks her to pose for him, wearing his wife’s jewels.
Adapted from Tracey Chevalier’s novel of the same name by screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, Girl with a Pearl Earring was the debut feature from UK director Peter Webber. It’s a sensual story about the power of seeing – and of being seen – and fittingly the cinematography by Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove) is sublime. Each and every frame is composed and lit like a Dutch masterpiece. We can see that the vivid pink of a dead pig’s heads at the butcher’s can be just as beautiful as the velvet tapestry on the artist’s table. DOP Serra was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA Award for his work here, but the film is really Johansson’s. With hardly a word of dialogue she expresses a world of blooming desire and understanding.
A Good Woman
Johansson plays Meg Windermere, a young wife on the verge of losing her innocence in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Directed by Mike Barker (To Kill a King), the story has been relocated from 1890s London the Italy’s Amalfi Coast in the 1930s, where the idle rich go to play and gossip. A notorious and much-divorced older woman, Mrs Erlynn (Helen Hunt) has set her sights on Meg’s husband (Mark Umbers), much to the delight of playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore). He sees a chance to seduce Meg, and plans to whisk her away on his yacht. Meanwhile, a rich old duffer, Tuppy (a lovable Tom Wilkinson) hopes to marry the scandalous Mrs Erlynn. But is the fallen woman really bad, or merely misunderstood, and can she save Meg from making a terrible mistake?
This farce, full of melodrama and moralising, is not Wilde’s best play, and the film itself seems an odd mix of Wilde’s epigrams and its own strange logic. But there’s no doubting Johansson elevates the role she’s given – a modest 21-year-old girl who doesn’t drink and is in love with her husband. We really believe her heartbreak when she suspects him of infidelity – and she totally rocks the skimpy backless gold dress she buys to get revenge on him.
A Love Song for Bobby Long
Johansson’s oft-proved chemistry with older male actors is evident again in this story where she shares (and perhaps steals) the screen with a cussing, drawling, white-haired John Travolta. Johansson plays 18-year-old Pursilane (‘named after a weed’) whose estranged junkie mother dies, leaving her a dilapidated house in New Orleans. The catch: she has to share it with two of her mother’s drunken friends – a disgraced literature professor, Bobby Long (Travolta) and his younger Bourbon-soaked protégé and wannabe writer, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht).
Directed by Shainee Gabel (Anthem), who adapted the story from a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, A Love Song for Bobby Long is awash in Southern clichés and a few too many eccentric characters. But Johansson shines as the neglected girl who’s been around the block a few times (she used to live in a Florida trailer park with a porn-loving boyfriend) but still retains her essential innocence and love of life. There are many sweet moments here as the men grow to love her and rely on her, while also helping her to finish high school and realise her college dreams.
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