How Scarlett Johansson Put the Moves and the Screws on Hollywood

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer
The third outing for Marvel’s Black Widow came off without a hitch last weekend, which saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier set a new record for April preems, and Scarlett Johansson further shoveled the limelight in with artsy sci-fi Under the Skin. All this tells us little about the New York-born 29-year-old starlet herself, except that, in a relatively short career, the young actress’s honed her role-picking skill to beat the band.

It’s not the first time Marvel’s proved its comic-book-to-screen heroines cast a longer, three-D shadow on screen than DC’s and while Skin may mark the first time Scarlett’s shot a fully nude scene, critics generally agree it’s there to advance the story. Will the blonde beaut’s headline-hogging emphasis on that commitment to story draw in more auds regardless? Perhaps, but let’s not blame her for cinema-goers’ confused embrace of hormonetertainment. If anything, she’s standing on the frontline of changing long-running stereotypes regarding women in the movie biz – growing up at a time when “feminism” had, for all intents and purposes, won the day, her feeling of self-worth is too deeply ingrained not to bubble up in outrage at some of the industry’s old-hat sexist practices.

Scarlett Johansson Don Jon Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scarlett’s slayed the red carpet hundreds of times, graced magazine covers hundreds more, but what she’s done best is act and make the Hollywood A-list despite of all that jazz. Moreover, as an advocate for celebs’ right not to worry about the media glare every waking hour, she’s always flown in the face of Hollywood’s unwritten rules – most notably when she threw her weight behind the momentous anti-paparazzi law which passed in California some nine years back. Brooking none of the conventionally accepted nonsense of the industry, Scarlett’s a force of nature and her political streak has been “acting up” ever since she could vote, using her clout with young people to get them into the booths as well. But, while privacy, voting behaviors and, controversially, “peace between Israel and Palestine” are very much on her mind, the thesp is, first and foremost, just that, a well-rounded actress, with four Golden Globe noms and a Tony under her belt to prove it.

Scarlett Ingrid Johansson didn’t come from money, didn’t go to any private elementary or get an Ivy League education – after graduating from the Professional Children’s School, she pushed through with pursuing an acting career, then branched out into singing, and, when that came a cropper, dusted herself off and scored a hit on Broadway. She showed her acting chops early on, with bit parts in North and The Horse Whisperer putting her on the up-and-comers’ map – soon enough, she broke through as an indie darling-to-be – the best-friend foil opposite Thora Birch in Ghost World awkwardly coming into her femininity, then the famously smoking and ephemeral love interest opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and finally, conclusively, the quiet, unassuming muse in Girl with a Pearl Earring, opposite Colin Firth.

Scarlett Johansson The Other Boleyn Girl

Her career took off after 2003, skyrocketing to the Hollywood stratosphere and the attendant record-breaking pay check she commands today – all thanks to an inner fire that’s equal parts pizzazz and feistiness. Her golden locks and Marilyn-esque simmer may hark back to Old Hollywood glamour (and stand her in good enough stead for some parts, see her Janet Leigh in 2012’s Hitchcock), but there’s more to Scarlett than the bee-stung sex kitten that meets the eye (and topped Esquire’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” roster twice!). Even the parts that banked heavily on her looks, she made her own and shone through with her personal brand of gumption-infused charisma.

From standing up to John Travolta in A Love Song for Bobby Long, up to winding Joseph Gordon-Levitt around her little finger in Don JonScarlett’s long preferred roles that go against the grain, without, however, pushing the envelope too much. Directors have had her straddling Beauty and Might, most often zooming in with gusto on the former, and, in a sense, throughout a good chunk of her filmography, including her much-lauded Woody Allen collabs, she seems wrapped up in Passion. Whether she’s the seductress in the wrong (Match Point, Don Jon) or the seduced being wronged by others (A Good Woman, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Other Boleyn Girl, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the running theme must have been getting constrictive. The type-smashing disembodied turn in Her last year managed to not only put to rest naysayers’ criticism of Scarlett’s overreliance on winsome genes, but also to position her as a bona fide talent, capable of pulling off a voice-only role and even eclipse the likes of Joaquin Phoenix while she’s at it.

Scarlett’s yet to pull a Charlize-Theron-in-Monster Oscar stunt, but one could argue hers is a calculated long game of shoring up her stunning onscreen persona just so, when she does decide to take that out-of-character plunge, she’ll have AMPAS by the short and curlies. On the other, more pragmatic, hand, there’s certainly nothing deplorable about actresses showing off their looks – especially since the industry and its punters have no qualms about objectifying women on screen. Actresses will build themselves up in the public consciousness without having much control over the public’s perception of them. What they do have a say in is how they use the “star capital” to blaze a trail of their own, to hold off until the right parts come along, or to turn an eye-candy role on its pretty little head.

Scarlett Johansson Black Widow The Avengers

Though certainly typecasting is a nuisance that most thesps would want to steer clear of, as is Hollywood’s harping on its starlets’ figures, makeup-free looks and the like – a true woman of this world will know how to negotiate the inexorable madness. Scarlett has walked the walk like a pro: while the actress has been known to call out journos for their “tacky, lazy and flippant” ScarJo moniker or their unimaginative questions at press junkets, she’s also taken on characters that both assert her femininity and help her move the focus off it, and grow as an artist, like the alluring alien in Under the Skin. In an interview with The Guardian, Scarlett confesses: “I thought it would be incredibly challenging to play a character that’s free of judgment, that has no relationship to any emotion I could relate to. And for me, at this point, I think it much more interesting for me to look at something and know that I can play it, but not know how, rather than to look at something and go, ‘Ah, I can do that.’ And then just do it.”

Next up for the New York City slicker are two actioners, the Luc Besson sci-fi Lucy that you can watch a trailer of below and the new Avengers with Joss Whedon taking up the director’s gauntlet again – both, filmmakers with a good track record of female-driven flicks. But, even more exciting still, Scarlett’s poised to make history when she turns her hand to Black Widow, following a rapt reception of the eponymous comic-book character (or her body-hugging suit) which she fleshed out with a realistic personality. If the spinoff rumors are true, it might mark a crucial turning point in the history of comic book adaptation, as the previous heroine-centric ones have all been massive flops, hitting an absolute bottom with 2005’s Elektra. But back then they didn’t have Scarlett in the lead role, nor these MPAA figures (that find distaff prevalent at the movies and auds eager for super-heroines) to back up the investment, nor the towering example of catering to women through action-packed flicks that is Joss Whedon(’s Avengers).

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