Big Screen Movies

Why Scarlett Johansson is the star of the year, and possibly, the decade

Scarlett Johansson in a still from ‘Jojo Rabbit’.

Scarlett Johansson in a still from ‘Jojo Rabbit’.  


She had pivotal roles in two of this year’s most talked about films, ‘Marriage Story’ and ‘Jojo Rabbit’

In the opening montage of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Charlie (Adam Driver) points out that he loves the way his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) listens to people, often too patiently, and makes them feel comfortable even about the most embarrassing things. It perfectly sums up the warm and empathetic aura of the character, delicately interpreted by Johansson, in this microscopic look at a collapsing marriage.


There is a doggedness with which Nicole wants to pursue the “act of hope”— of moving on from a seemingly happy marriage, finding herself again, not just as a professional screen actor but also an individual — and seizing life. She might have been the one to take the difficult, decisive step, unfathomable to Charlie, yet not once does Nicole come across as the villain of the piece. You hear her when she says that all these years she had never felt alive for herself but for “his aliveness”. “I got smaller,” she says, of her shrinking stature.

There’s regret, rancour and anger but also residues of togetherness, an overwhelming protectiveness towards what was once a family, and also an admission that she will never stop loving Charlie even though it may not make sense any more. Johansson makes sense of the contradictory emotional pulls, bringing dignity and compassion to even the ugliest of confrontations. There is an immense sense of loss, but no bleakness; a sense of growing apart, but not quite getting torn asunder. Love might be dead, but long live love.

“She is my favourite actress,” confesses Charlie about Nicole in the film. And many are saying the same thing of Johansson’s performances this year. While the jury is still out on whether Renée Zellweger has outdone everyone playing Judy Garland, it has been Johansson’s special year, with the actor featuring in two of the most rewarding films, Marriage Story and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit.

Diverse films

A still from ‘Marriage Story’.

A still from ‘Marriage Story’.  

Marriage Story has already fetched her a Golden Globe nomination, and the 35-year-old could well bag her first Oscar nomination too.

Just about everything seems to be going right for Johansson. Earlier this year, she starred in the highest-grossing Avengers: Endgame. And coming up next is her eighth Marvel film, a standalone movie centred on the character she plays, secret agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, for which she has reportedly been paid almost the same amount as Chris Evans (Captain America).

The only sour note has been the controversy last year around her playing the lead of a trans man in the movie Rub & Tug, for which she faced ferocious backlash. “In hindsight, I mishandled that situation,” she said in a recent interview.

Playing Black Widow would be consistent with the actor’s experiments with films across genres. She has worked with a diverse set of filmmakers, from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan.

She even played the voice of Samantha, a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). The film premièred at the Rome International Film Festival, where she won best actress; a rare honour for a voice part.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Johansson took to acting, singing and dancing very early. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) proved to be her first adult breakthrough role. In fact, 2019 harks back to 2003, the year of Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she played Griet, the young 17th-century servant in the household of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. She got a Bafta nomination for best actress in a leading role and was nominated for the Golden Globe for both films; she won the Bafta for Lost in Translation.

Scarlett Johansson in 2003’s ‘Lost in Translation’.

Scarlett Johansson in 2003’s ‘Lost in Translation’.  

Common thread

In hindsight, Nicole could well be the grown-up version of Charlotte from Lost in Translation. Johansson essayed both with a similar honesty. Newly married but bored and lonely, lost in a foreign land, amidst strangers, in an alien culture she can’t comprehend, Charlotte makes the silence around her talk about her own misplaced sense of self in a marriage that doesn’t seem to be holding well even in its early days. Nicole then could be Charlotte finally being able to get in touch with herself and walking out.

There is a lot in common in the two Johansson films this year as well. The thread of motherhood, for instance. Johansson is parent extraordinaire in Marriage Story, one who ‘plays’ and never tires of the demands of her child, day or night. In Jojo Rabbit, even as a fleeting presence, she is luminous as the mother who sets an example for her son by being the personification of humanity, stealthily keeping Jews safe in Nazi Germany. “I wanted her to feel like a safe place, a loving and vivacious person in the middle of her life, so that you really felt the profound loss when she’s not there,” said Johansson of her role.

On a slightly different note, in both of Johansson’s outings this year, shoes seem to play a key role. They mark important mileposts in her character’s life trajectory. In JoJo Rabbit they symbolise the end, but also a continuity of resistance to oppression.

In Marriage Story, despite the relationship being all in knots, she is still the centre; the one to rely on; the person who will tie up life’s little loose ends. Who but Johansson could have imbued with such extraordinarily deep meaning a throwaway moment like tying your shoelaces?

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 5:29:26 PM |

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