Can we talk a bit less about acting? (or: please only cast Scarlett Johansson in weird movies)
Scarlett Johansson is on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. Now, the choice of magazine cover star is a bit more haphazard than you might believe, and although I’d like to think that VF is better run than most of the publications I’ve worked for, its cover story often feels like the feature that’s had the least care put into it.
But Johansson feels like the right person at the right time. There is a lot to talk about, including her scuffle with Oxfam. But mostly, her career, which had seemed becalmed for the best part of a decade, has come to life with Her, Under The Skin and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the blockbuster balancing the two prestige gigs. They are three very different films – Spike Jonze’s melancholy, eccentric comedy-drama*, Jonathan Glazer’s startling mix of gonzo porn and Kubrick, and the latest instalment in Marvel’s crowd-and-critic pleasing Avengers saga. They could, however, all be considered sci-fi, and, like a lot of sci-fi, concern the question of what makes us human.
Johansson matters to the success of all these films – it’s not just that she is in them and people happen to like them. Her value is obvious in Under The Skin where she is constantly present. But you could say that in Her, on the other hand, she is ‘only’ a voice, and she was a very late addition to the movie, and in Captain America she has one of a pair of sidekick roles. That would be to misunderstand both films – with Her, Jonze took the decision that Johansson’s voice worked better than that of Samantha Morton**, who I think most people who have an opinion on the matter would consider a superior actress. Not having seen a version with Morton’s voice, I can’t judge whether this was right, but Johansson works. In The Winter Soldier, she has to make the amiable but depth-free Chris Evans look interesting – as sidekick roles go, this is a substantial and satisfying one.
It’s been a long-standing belief of mine that we put too much emphasis on individual acting performances. This is, of course, what awards ceremonies steer us towards – looking for a combination of skill and commitment. While I feel that good and bad acting are real things (but there is no consensus on what they are, otherwise Ewan McGregor wouldn’t have a career), I think most of the time we’re better off talking about use (by the filmmakers) and choices (by the actor and her/his ‘people’).
So let’s say that Scarlett Johansson has some assets (feel free to insert joke here): a weird beauty that is genuinely that (rather than a polite way of saying she just looks weird), a great body***, a terrific smile that transforms an otherwise moody face, and a distinctive, husky voice. When not smiling, however, she often appears bored or disengaged as a default position – perfect in Ghostworld or Lost In Translation, less appropriate in other parts.
I would argue that comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You, We Bought A Zoo and In Good Company failed to use her for what she’s good at. Other movies she’s been in – The Black Dahlia, The Spirit – were so spectacularly rotten all round it seems unfair to apportion blame to any of the actors****. Johansson had her phase as Woody Allen’s muse, from which she only escaped relatively unscathed from Vicky Christina Barcelona – Match Point, for instance, disappears into a black hole whenever the energy-deficient pairing of Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears on screen.
The question is, has Johansson become better at acting lately? Does she now seem capable I’d stuff she could never do before? Not to any great extent, I’d argue. Maybe a bit in Her – though I find it hard to judge as there no performance of hers to compare it to, and towards the end of Under The Skin. But mostly – at the risk of sounding like meat-and-potatoes football pundit Steve Claridge – it’s all about putting the right actors in the right roles.
Certainly craft and talent come into it, but take someone having an even better year than Johansson – Matthew McConaughey. Lots of people, including me, loved the chest-thump/tribal drone humming thing that he improvised in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Could he have done the same thing in Failure To Launch or Sahara? Well, yes, I can imagine that. Would we be hailing it as genius? I think not.
Nothing captures our collective contradictory take on acting as much as the awards season. On the one hand, the acting awards are the ones that get media and public most excited – you don’t tend to get headlines about the winning cinematographers or screenwriters. At the same time, clearly lacking faith in their ability to spot a great performance, the Oscar voters in particular tend to rely on easy-to-grasp markers – is the actor playing someone in a wheelchair, someone dying, mentally ill, with an addiction, or a real famous person against whose memory we can gauge the performance? So, from recent years in the Best Actor category, we have McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (weight loss, critical illness); Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (historical figure, martyr); Jean Dujardin – The Artist (a rare comedy win – but a bunch of difficulty points for acting without spoken dialogue); Colin Firth – The King’s Speech (historical figure, disability); Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart (alcohol addiction); Sean Penn (historical figure, martyr)… And so on. There are exceptions, but for every Denzel in Training Day you get a Geoffrey Rush in Shine.
As he ploughed round the interview circuit talking about his trifecta of triumphs (Wolf/Dallas/True Detective), McConaughey made it clear that the most important thing he had done was keep saying ‘no’ for months on end. Refusing to make any old crap, refusing (he didn’t say this explicitly, obviously) to share screen space with Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston. In his case, the choices were crucial – I think romcom
producers and (say) Richard Linklater like a lot of the same aspects of what he brings to a role, it’s the movies around him that are different.
With Johansson, carefully targeted use is more crucial. Cast her as a spoilt Jersey Jewish princess w/the hot bod – as she is in Don Jon – and she is OK, but you miss out on the weirdness that makes her so worth watching in Under The Skin, or the rare capacity for embodying utter boredom you get in the best of her early films.
I do believe that great acting exists, but it’s a rare thing, which is why the loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman was so massive. Because for every Hoffman, there are 50 Keanu Reeves – perfect in the right film (both Bill And Teds, Point Break), horrible in the wrong one. Hell, I’ve even seen Hayden Christensen – so widely trashed for making the Star Wars sequels even more horrible than they already were – doing perfectly decent work on stage and screen.
So let’s be a little less mystical and a little more analytical about why the same actor can be so watchable in some roles and so off-putting in others. Although if anyone has a better name for it than ‘use and choices’, please let me know.
*The film that causes sharp girls to talk in a sighy, soft voice after they’ve seen it.
**Unless you buy into the idea that Her is some kind of answer film to Lost In Translation, in which case Johansson’s presence has a whole different reading.
***Although a friend and I have spent too much time arguing whether Johansson has stumpy legs or not.
****Although, dear god, the horrifying miscasting of Hilary Swank in The Black Dahlia – you can see why she wanted to get away from being cast as ‘the chick who makes a convincing dude’, but… well, sometimes by trying to shatter stereotypes you just reinforce them.