Saturday, November 22, 2014

The 15 Essential Performances of Scarlett Johansson

If there is one American actress right now who has managed to cultivate not just a body of work that is great but also creating performances that is really like no other. It is Scarlett Johansson. A woman who began as a child actress that was wise beyond her years as she would become one of the finest sex symbols in recent years. Johansson has managed to back that up with performances that are really unlike anything. While not all of her films and performances haven’t been winners as she did struggle to be taken seriously. It was in 2013 where the actress finally made her doubters bow down and remind everyone why she’s damn good. In honor of her 30th birthday, here is a list of the 15 Essential Performances of her career so far:

1. Under the Skin

If a lesser actress was to play this role, it wouldn’t work because it’s a performance that requires discipline, the ability to not really say very much, the willingness to be detached, and to actually bare all literally and figuratively. It’s the reason why Scarlett is so perfect for this role where she strips down not just her clothes but her persona as this sex symbol. In playing this alien whose job is to tempt men and kill them, she plays a character that needed to be alien-like as well as observe humanity in all of its complexities. There’s moments in the performance that is just shocking while the scene where she looks at herself naked in the mirror is among one of the most compelling moments in cinema. It’s a role that only she can play and no one else can.

2. Lost in Translation

The film and performance that would essentially put her in the world spotlight. It is truly a career-defining performance from someone who was only 17 when she made the film as she proved to be very believable as an aimless college graduate. Johansson’s chemistry with Bill Murray is the heart and soul of the film as she brought a lot of depth to a young woman unsure of what to do with her life as her marriage is on the rocks. It’s a really a performance that has Johansson be so full of life and also display a sense of charm as well as being comfortable as a foil for Murray.

3. Her

Though she doesn’t appear in the film, Johansson’s voice role as the operating system Samantha is truly something that is out of this world. It’s a performance full of personality as it’s very funny but also manages to find soul inside a machine. Though Samantha Morton was supposed to do the voice for that role, there’s something in Johansson’s voice that managed to be so exuberant and engaging as it is clear that she is perfect for that part. Nothing against Morton but it’s just that Johansson’s voice has a personality that feels extremely compelling as she manages to do so much for Joaquin Phoenix’s part.

4. Ghost World

One of the strong aspects about Johansson as an actress isn’t just playing a foil and be comfortable with it. It’s also in the fact that she is willing to take on a supporting role and do wonders with it as her role as Rebecca is one that is funny but also in playing it straight. While Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi get the meatier parts in their respective roles as Enid and Seymour. Johansson’s performance as Rebecca is full of wonders as she is someone who resigns to dealing with reality in getting a job while not be afraid to grow up which was something Enid has a hard time accepting.

5. Girl with a Pearl Earring

While the role was originally meant for Kate Hudson in its initial production under the direction of Mike Newell until things fell apart where Samantha Morton and Kirsten Dunst were in consideration. The resulting film that has Johansson in the titular role showcases how good she is in conveying a young woman who becomes an unlikely muse to Johannes Vermeer. Though it’s a role with very little lines, Johansson manages to make it of her own as this quiet observer who is amazed by Vermeer as a painter while being wooed by Cillian Murphy as a young butcher. There’s elements of eroticism in Johansson’s performance such as the scene where Vermeer puts a pearl earring on her ear where it is touching but also very sensual which showcases why Johansson can do so much into a character by doing so little.

6. The Avengers

While Iron Man 2 was the film that introduced Johansson in the role of Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, it was in this film where Johansson really brings her A game and make Black Widow into a full-on badass. It’s a performance where Johansson gets to be funny and cool yet also manages to have scenes where she can be the brains in a group full of men and stand out. Notably in the way she interrogates Loki where she would pretend to be emotional while there’s some moments in how she interacts with Bruce Banner which suggests an attraction of sorts between the two.

7. Manny & Lo

While she was only 10 years old and had done a handful of films by the time she made this little indie gem. It is definitely the performance that proved that a new young star had arrived but one with an edge that sets her apart from some of her peers at the time. Playing the role of Manny as the youngest of the two sisterly-duo with Aleksa Palladino as Lo, Johansson displays a maturity and charm to her character as a young girl who is on the run with her sister as they try to find places to crash. It’s a role that features the first of many instances of the Johansson stare that is something that she would entrance audiences with for years to come. It’s a very low-key performance that showcases some curiosity while it’s also very engaging which shows how far she was going to go at the time. An interesting bit of trivia about the film is that there’s a scene where Manny and Lo watch a family playing miniature golf as that family is actually Scarlett’s parents, her old sister Vanessa, and her twin-brother Hunter.

8. Don Jon

Anyone who is a sex symbol seem to enjoy the attention they have but never really go all the way to show what they got or be taken seriously. What Johansson does in the role of Barbara is just play the sexy woman and have fun with it. It’s a performance that is Johansson at her most comical where she spends half the film chewing gum and looking good while berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character for watching and whacking off to porn. Add a New Jersey accent and a love for bad romantic comedies, it is definitely Johansson being funny while not being afraid to be very un-likeable.

9. Match Point

In the first of a trio of collaborations with Woody Allen, Johansson’s performance as Nola is the embodiment of a seductress as she is the lone American in a film set in Britain as she would be someone who doesn’t have it all together to be part of a wealthy British family. It’s a role that has Johansson play the part of someone who is eager to try and fit in but she’s so insecure as she becomes Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ mistress as their affair would lead to trouble as it features Johansson at her most fiery and her most emotional.

10. A Love Song for Bobby Long

While it’s a role that shows the first of many instances of her entrancing sexuality, it is backed up by the fact that Johansson plays a character who has seem to gave up on living out whatever potential she has. That is until she learns that her mother is dead as she travels to New Orleans as she is forced to share her mother’s house with a former literary professor and a writer. While it’s a flawed film that features John Travolta overacting in his attempt to be Marlon Brando, it is Johansson that out-acts him by just playing it cool and display a sense of grace to her performance.

11. The Man Who Wasn't There

In a small but vital role as Birdy Abundas in the Coen Brothers’ offbeat noir film, Johansson manages to do what great actors do which is to steal the show no matter how small the role is. It’s a role that is the embodiment of innocence to Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane character as she entrances him through playing Beethoven piano sonatas as she is good at playing those but there’s aspects of her character which reveals a more complex side. Even as it is clear that everything Crane wants her to be isn’t exactly what she seems to be as it is one of her finest performances in that break-out year of 2001.

12. Lucy

The most recent film that she did isn’t an entirely great film but her performance is an example of someone who is pretty much game for anything while kicking ass all at the same time. It’s a performance that has Johansson be sexy but also a woman who is forced against her will to be a drug mule only to have access to all of her brain capacity. It’s definitely a performance that is off-the-wall but she manages to sell every aspect of someone becoming less human while having access to all sorts of things that makes the world so unique.

13. The Horse Whisperer

A part that was supposed to go to Natalie Portman, the film is another example of Johansson’s promise as an actress at a young age and how she managed to exceed expectations. It’s a role that has Johansson play a young girl who lost a leg due to a horsing accident as she copes with losing her horse as well as live the high expectations of her mother. It’s a performance filled with angst and torment as well as someone who is very vulnerable. Johansson manages to sell these moments as well as steal the film from many of her older co-stars including its director Robert Redford.

14. An American Rhapsody

The third performance as part of a trio of breakout roles that she did in the year of 2001, this was a role in which Johansson displayed a sense of teen angst as well as confusion as a Hungarian-born teenager who copes with not just being homesick but also at odds with her mother. It’s a performance where Johansson displays not just the look of a teenager in the 1960s but also one who felt lost in her identity as there’s an element of acting out while dismissing everything her mother went through to get to America. While it is based on aspects of Eva Gardos’ own real life which she would bring to film, it is Johansson who makes that character come to life in ways that is really unlike any teen role.

15. We Bought a Zoo

After a period of some lackluster films and performances where people thought of Johansson as style over substance. It is this film where the actress definitely returned to form in some respects. It’s one where she just doesn’t play the love interest nor an object of desire but rather someone who cares about animals as well as be someone who can stand toe-to-toe with Matt Damon. Most notably a scene where she has to tell Damon’s Ben Mee character about having to put down a tiger as she displays not just some fierce anger but proof that she means business. There’s also moments in the film where Johansson does display some humility and be cool about it which displays how good she committed she is to playing a role.

Honorable Mentions

There’s no question that for someone who is very accomplished as she is with a devoted fan base that there’s many other performances that fans will cite as among her best. Among them is in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige where even though the character isn’t an inspired one. There are elements in Johansson’s performance such as her first meeting with Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden that showcases how good she is in playing a role for someone who is meant to be a double-agent in a battle against two magicians. That is part of Johansson’s strength in playing a supporting role as another example is in If Lucy Fell where she plays a young girl who tries to get Sarah Jessica Parker to hook up with a quirky Ben Stiller as she manages to kind of steal the film from everyone. Then again, the film was pretty terrible as it ponders why does Eric Schaffer still gets funding for his shitty films.

Another example of Johansson’s strength as a supporting actress is in Iron Man 2 where she does manage to have some moments as it’s really more of an introduction to her Black Widow character. Still, she proves to be funny as makes director Jon Favreau a foil in whom she would work with again in Chef in a small role of sorts as a girlfriend of the titular character as she would urge him to go into his own. 2004 was an incredible year for Johansson as she followed up her spectacular year of 2003 by appearing several films as it would include a series of superb performances like A Love Song for Bobby Long as well as a bunch of diverse projects. The first was in an animated role as a mermaid named Mindy in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie that showed how funny she is.

Three other films from that year which added to her star power is a wonderful supporting turn as a young woman who falls for her father’s new and younger boss in the film In Good Company where Johansson definitely displays the sense of charm that has won audiences over. Another film from that year which didn’t get a wide release which is A Good Woman where it’s a performance that has Johansson display a young married woman still figuring out her role while being caught off guard by the idea of her husband having an affair. It’s not a great film but it certainly showcases the growing sensuality of her performance plus the ability to play someone in a period piece. The fifth 2004 film Johansson was in is Brian Robbins’ The Perfect Score which is the first time she would co-star with Chris Evans as the two are the highlights of a very bland film which was made before Johansson did Lost in Translation but it was delayed due to poor timing as she manages to bring charm to the outsider high school girl.

Then there’s the two other films she did with Woody Allen as it showcased her range as a comedy actress such as 2006’s Scoop and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona where the former definitely had her try to play a young gumshoe who is quite awkward yet Johansson manages to sell that. In the latter, it’s a performance that has her be the sexy woman who goes into a three-way relationship with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as it’s a role where her character does find herself as it features some of her funniest moments. One performance that is often considered underrated in some cases is in The Other Boleyn Girl where she plays Mary Boleyn as she does steal the film from both Natalie Portman and Eric Bana by not being very showy while displaying some humility as the sister who is usurped and later resign herself to a simpler life.

Then there’s performances that features some of the best of her work but also can be regarded as minor. The Nanny Diaries is an example of a project with a lot of potential but the results are disappointing. Though she is miscast is in the role, it is a performance that is engaging in the way she interacts with a child and make him feel safe as well as showcase some unique chemistry in her scenes with Laura Linney and Chris Evans. While Eight Legged Freaks isn’t great cinema as it is a B-movie to the fullest, Johansson does deserve some credit for just playing the part of an older sister who is trying to rebel while also be funny at times as it includes her nearly being devoured by a large spider. One notable role early in her career that is very good is the role of Sean Connery’s daughter in the godawful Just Cause where she is best in her restrained performance where she and Jessica Capshaw are being captured in the film’s twist.

The Non-Essential Performances

Not every actor can have a perfect record as some of them have been in bad films as well as display some awful performances and Johansson isn’t immune to that fault. Her debut role in North has her look cute as a young girl but it’s not enough to do anything for a film that is just so fucking awful as it is one of the worst films ever made. There’s also another performance in a film that Johansson did after The Horse Whisperer which is obvious is one that she wants to forget in a film called My Brother, the Pig that features an early performance from Eva Mendes. It’s a horrible film where Johansson is forced to overact and play a snotty teenager who deals with having a brother who becomes a pig. There’s also Home Alone 3 which is nothing more than just a lame addition to the series which had nothing to do with the two films though Johansson does get a nice line here and there where she’s sort of spared.

Another film Johansson is in with Eric Schaffer which she probably wants to forget is a 30-second role as a theater actress in the very self-indulgent film Fall where her little cameo isn’t even worth watching. Then there’s some of the worst films that she did which definitely questioned her choices such as He’s Just Not That Into You as she plays a very slutty character with no depth which is typical of a film that is so horrible. Brian de Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia should’ve been a great project but the horrible script doesn’t really give Johansson the chance to do anything as she and Josh Hartnett don’t have chemistry.

Then there’s two films that are really just downright horrific in which it showcases how not to use Johansson in a film. The Spirit by Frank Miller is a film that wishes it was Sin City but it is downright unwatchable. In the role of Samuel L. Jackson’s assistant, Johansson only gets to play dress-up and show her cleavage as she doesn’t really get to do anything at all. Finally, there’s The Island by Michael Bay which is one of the worst films ever. This is where Bay makes Johansson into someone who is just there to look pretty and be overwhelmed by these mindless spectacles of destruction. Her performance is pretty bad but the entire film itself with its awful cinematography and its attempt to try and be a remake of Logan’s Run but with clones and all sorts of bullshit.

Well, that is it for Scarlett Johansson as some wonder why Hitchcock nor Captain America: The Winter Soldier aren’t mentioned (I haven’t seen either of them) while there is more to come such as Hail Caesar! and The Avengers: Age of Ultron as she is poised to garner accolades in the future. Even as she has the talent to do that as well as the ability to kick some ass. After all, she’s Scar-Jo bitch. Scar-Jo 3:16 means she’ll fuck you up. That’s the bottom line cause Scar-Jo says so bitch!

© thevoid99 2014


Dell said...

Hitchcock wasn't good, but ScarJo was good in her role. As for The Winter Soldier, I love that movie. To be honest, though, I think of all her Marvel stuff as one role. And yeah, she was mesmerizing in Under the Skin. Great list.

Anonymous said...

I love all the ScarJo appreciation recently! She's incredible. I agree with a lot on your list, although I would have added Scoop and VCB, since I think they were two of her best roles, for sure. She's incredible!

Kevin Powers said...

Excellent list! I haven't seen a few of these, most notably Under the Skin. I have to see that soon.

s. said...

Love that you have Her so high up. She was better there than some of the actual Oscar nominated performances last year - it's amazing what she did with her voice alone, I thought she gave the best performance in the movie.

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell Ottley-I saw bits of Hitchcock but not enough to make a valid opinion though the stuff I had seen with Scarlett was quite good.

@Fisti-She totally is. Though I have Jena as my #1 woman, I don't want to say Scarlett is #2 since I don't think it's fair. I would rather have her and Jena share that spot.

@Speaks Movie-Go see Under the Skin or else Scar-Jo will give you a Scar-Jo Stunna!

@Sati-I totally agree. Never in my life did I ever think I would fall for a machine.

John Hitchcock said...

Scarlett Johanson is certainly a talented actress. I wasn't hugely keen on Lucy (possibly the first time I walked out of a Cineplex before the screening was over), but her performance in Under the Skin was amazing. I thought it was interesting how they made her seem more human than the human characters, who often seemed alien and yet at the same gave her an alien mind that makes her enigmatic. Not very many actresses can pull off a role where they have minimal dialogue. The only other one I can think of is Zoƫ Lund, who made her debut playing the mute protagonist of "Ms. 45".

She's always a lot of fun in The Avengers, of course. I love her introductory scene where she is all tied up and telling Nick Fury that she's "in the middle of an interrogation" and it looks like she's been captured. Then she awesomely subverts expectations when she easily overpowers her apparent captors and we realize that she was the one interrogating them all along.

thevoid99 said...

@John Hitchcock-Under the Skin is the film that definitely put Scarlett miles above her peers. Everyone who had said that she's nothing a pretty face who can't act have to eat a bowl of shit because that performance said it all.

Chris said...

Great list! Admirable SJ still goes for challenging roles like Under the Skin. Other stars in her position might just go for the big money.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-That is why Scarlett is a lot better than many of the actresses in Hollywood. She is willing to take risks and do different things whether it's a blockbuster or an art film.

Lights Camera Reaction said...

Great list! Glad to see We Bought a Zoo on here. Definitely not her best performance, but she felt so natural in the role and really lit up the screen.

thevoid99 said...

@Lights Camera Reaction-I really enjoyed Scarlett's performance in We Bought a Zoo which I think is one of her more underrated performances. Largely because it was the antithesis of the sexy caricatures she had been playing at the time.