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Friday
Dec202013

Scarlett Johansson in 'Her', 'Don Jon' and The Nicole Kidman Art of the Comeback

Glenn here to discuss two of The Film Experience’s favorite women. If you’re like me and have been watching with glee the re-ascension of Scarlett Johansson to critical favour then you also may have noticed the parallels between her and the goddess Nicole Kidman. It took a shorter amount of time, of course, but in this day and age everything moves father. With audiences finally being allowed to see hear Johansson in Her in movie theaters, it seems like as good a time as any to ask the question: is Scarlett Johansson this decade's Nicole Kidman?

When you look at the careers of Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson, the two share a lot of similarities. Both broke out at the tail-end of a decade – the ‘80s for Kidman with Dead Calm, ‘90s for Johansson with The Horse Whisperer – and had critical successes before Hollywood ceased attempting to figure out what the hell to do with them. [more...]

They each descended into a period of miscastings with occasional glimmers of what they were capable of. A Portrait of a Lady here, a Match Point there, but a sea of Practical Magic and The Nanny Diaries is all too familiar for Hollywood’s wannabe leading ladies.

Where the similarities become truly spooky is the comeback. Both were married to good looking leading men (Kidman, obviously, for much longer) when they decided to take their ignored gifts to the stage. Kidman’s much-ballyhooed performance in David Hare's 1998 play The Blue Room (directed by Sam Mendes!) was greeted with acclaim in the UK. Johansson stuck to Broadway and won a Tony Award for Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. These efforts clearly sparked something in each of the actresses and kicked off what are arguably their finest periods.

Johansson has in fact spoken of the stage’s necessity to “act with your whole body”, and admitted to certain limitations that she had let take over her screen persona. The voice work in Her that won her awards from the Venice Film Festival and nominations from Washington DC and the OFCS impresses for many reasons, but most of all because, having been stripped of her most valuable on screen asset, she's forced to look at different ways of creating character. Without her body to distract audiences, we are allowed to notice the carefully modulated tones of her voice and how it shifts like sand between girlish enthusiasm to melancholy soulfulness.

Does it deserve an award nomination? Maybe, but not for many of the reasons I've heard mentioned. Voice work has been Oscar-worthy many times in the past – I’m thinking of Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo and the works of Marni Nixon, but everybody has their favourites – but as the vocal game has taken jobs away from talented voice artists and handed it to celebrities without the proper skills to create fully-formed characters, her work is shining like a beacon. (Kidman, if you remember, also broke back into the good graces of the public thanks to her voice, except that was for singing in a musical.)

Johansson's work earlier this year in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is where I feel her awards buzz should really lie (plus it's a genuine supporting role, unlike 'Samantha'). It lacks the potential history-breaking excitement as well as the more respectable home base of Her, but is an excellent example of “acting with your whole body.” In body, in costume, and, yes, in voice, it is a three dimensional performance. She does remarkable things as Samantha in Her, but she’s given an even larger range to work with in Don Jon.

Just like Kidman, she has an embarrassment of riches. Remember when we were all worried Kidman would miss out on an Oscar nominations because she delivered both Moulin Rouge! and The Others the same year? Sadly for Johansson her best picture contender is the one with the more unconventional of the two performances. It’s also unlikely that Johansson will figure into the mainstream awards conversation for Under the Skin next year, just as with Kidman’s collaboration with Jonathan Glazer, Birth (except for that blissful Golden Globe nomination). Scarlett was even the best thing in Hitchcock if you want to keep going. But now is the time to strike. To take that brave, but more audience friendly role that could win her awards. (Wait too long and you become another Jennifer Jason Leigh.) 

Hopefully Johansson continues being smart with her film-choices. Working in the Marvel universe hampers her ability to do as she pleases, but is working for Lars Von Trier too far off? He hasn’t announced his post-Nymphomaniac film yet, but maybe there’s a role in there waiting for Johansson. Perhaps she could try reaching out to Jane Campion. I'd also love to see what Lee Daniels would do to her, but maybe that's just me. One can only hope. Johansson as auteur muse is something I like the sound of and, considering her output of late, I suspect she likes the sound of it, too.  

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Reader Comments (32)

Thanks for this. Count me among those happy to see her back.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Scarlett isn't in Nicole Kidman's league.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Dave -- but Nicole Kidman wasn't in Nicole Kidman's league in 2000 ;)

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

PLEASE!!!!! Although the Glazer connection makes it unfair because despite being in one of the best sci-fi movies of the last few years ScarJo does not have a Nicole close-up moment in Under the Skin.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

don't do that to nicole kidman!

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

While this comparison may be "controversial" for some, I get it and mostly agree with it. Though Under the Skin hasn't been released yet, she has had a pretty phenomenal year, even if she's a little under the radar when it comes to awards. And while she has a long way to go before reaching Kidman's highs, she is going into some very interesting directions that could ultimatley put her in that "risk-taking movie star" box that Kidman lives in (and one that's otherwise pretty empty when it comes to our female stars).

And I love the idea of her working with Lars Von Trier. I also want Kidman to work with him again (they came so close with Nymphomaniac!). He should cast both of them in his next film just to please me.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPosh

I can't think of a less enjoyable scenario than Johansson getting cast in films I actually want to see.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrodie

I like Scar over Jennifer Lawrence but she's not even a poor man's Kidman. Kidman is a delicate piece of nature that should be upheld and cherished--I love my Nicole Kidman and fully support her winning for Virginia Wolf. Although it hurts that the only plausible way she'll reach a second Oscar or even a fourth overall career nomination will be for an actress in a supporting role--Kidman should be in the Keaton, Christie, Woodward class of four time nominees where all their nominations are Best Actress ones.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Should be noted that pre-2000 Kidman had Eyes Wide Shut which is quite honestly one of the strongest female performances Kubrick ever had- most certainly on par with Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Nicole Kidman is probably the most talented actress of all time, ScarJo don't compare.

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPete

All the Johansson naysayers: have you seen her in Don Jon? What issue do you take with that performance?

December 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColin

No one is blasting her work in Don Jon. We're saying she's nobody's Kidman. That would be like me saying Kathy Bates is the fat Meryl Streep.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

ScarJo is terrible. Absolutely terrible. Overrated diva with no emotional range and the sheer idea of her ever being considered for an Oscar is laughable. Her voice is cringeworthy and makes any film virtually unwatchable. Her shtick of being the "casual" actress is goddamn old. She's lucky to even compare to Jessica Alba.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRet

Johansson was brilliant in *A View from the Bridge*, a complete revelation. Her performance as Samantha is simply sensational, nuanced, sexy, warm, sad, and ultimately quite haunting. I don't get people saying things like "she can't act." Let's also remember those comments followed Nicole Kidman for a long while too though.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNomar

LOL, guys, guys... I mean merely in terms of swift critical revival spurred on by theatre after a period of no man's land. If nothing else, I think Scarlett certainly saw what Nicole had done and might be trying to do the same.

And, you know, she IS a good actor with two great performances this year, which is the most important factor.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Nicole Kidman uses an acting coach and chases after auteurs. I believe she's well aware of her limitations as an actress.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Every good actor uses a coach. Only subpar actors think they can go it alone.

I think Scarlett needs to do a period piece. I think her voice and body would suit a 40's noir very well. Or a western.

Kidman can do anything she chooses. She has excellent taste in projects and isn't afraid to stretch or try something new. I've never known her to give a bad perf even when the film sucked.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Apples and oranges. Kidman's lineage is the Hepburns, Vivien Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Vanessa Redgrave; ScarJo is more in the tradition of Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Lee Remick, Natalie Wood. (But please keep her away from Von Trier. I'd love to see her work with Lee Daniels or Todd Haynes, though.)

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I read this post as a celebration of Scarlett making interesting acting choices, which should be celebrated. I missed where Glenn asked if people like Scarlett or Nicole better. Of course everyone has their favorites but it is really disappointing to keep seeing all the actress bashing in the comments (i.e. any post about Jennifer Lawrence). Especially since this site is about loving actresses.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdaisy

daisy -hear hear!

also i suddenly want them to have a baby named Scarlett Kidman.

December 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Also: i am mystified about the comments suggesting Scarlett can't act. Yes, she went through a rough patch but she's TERRIFIC in the following films:

GHOST WORLD
LOST IN TRANSLATION
THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING
DON JON
HER

so with that many major artful performances under her belt, how are people saying she can't act exactly?

All one has to do if one is confused at her artistic renaissance is watch Iron Man 2 and The Avengers back to back. Even within the context of "just hired for her beauty/name" she is suddenly alive again as an actor. This is an actor that took stock of herself and her career and decided to up her game.

If she starts coasting and phoning it in we'll talk again but for the time begin she seems bloody serious about acting (while having great fun with it) and that's to be applauded

PAUL -- i'd agree with that but both traditions have their merits.

HENRY -- y'all know i love my Kidman like crazy but she has been bad in some pictures (as most actors are if they work a lot). I remember her being just nothing in Days of Thunder and not believabkel as a surgeon and of course bewitched and the stepford wives were complete messes ... and it's not like she rescued them. But yes, when she's on no one can touch her. I'm still so pissed she didn't get an Oscar nom for The Paperboy since she blew the actual nominees out of the water. (sigh)

December 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I am appreciative of ScarJo's current upswing, but I will refrain from making Kidman comparisons, at least until she teams up with an auteur and makes a substantial contribution to the subgenre Women Who Lie to Themselves SILENTLY at the OPERA, assuring thus a place in Nick Davis' shelf AND the Pantheon of Greats, alongside Nicole's Birth.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Carmen: In Lost in Translation, her time with Bill Murray pretty much saves her from a future of lying to herself, but at the beginning she's a bit of a junior Miss Woman Who Lies to Herself.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Daisy, thank you! We're not comparing their talent or their movies, just the similarities of their situation.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I think she's the best part of Don Jon. I never knew she could be that good... As you said, is a 3-D performance: the whole body, voice and expressions are working together to give a soul (even one that I almost hate) to an stereotipic character. I'm eagerly waiting for HER. Jonze can't fail, he's great.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterhh

Nathaniel, I would add Match Point to that list too, that was, I think that movie cemented her sex symbol status.

I think she and Dunst are two actresses who have not being given their due ( although they may be partially to blame for their on and off choices). Scarlett was overlooked by the academy for Lost in Translation/The Girl with a Pearl Earring and Match Point , movies where she was amazing which is very odd becuase of her bombshell status and how the academy loves young actresses - Dunst on the other hand was overlooked for performances in pictures that didnot receive universal acclaim s that still makes some sense ( Marie Antoinette, Melancholia and All good things). Also, I just realized while writng this, how Dunst and ScarJo have worked with the a lot of the same directors/fims - Jonze, Coppolla,Crowe, a big Marvel Franchise, except Scarlett had a whole phase cashing in on her sexulaity/action and Dunst with her dark comedy skills.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRizz

err, I just don't think scarlett was ever 'great'. as charming and effective as she is in "lost in translation", it's not a wonderful feat of acting to me. nathaniel said about mélanie laurent I think how she was greatly used for iconography in "inglorious basterds"... imo the same applies to scarlett in "lost in translation", sofia used her (limited talents) brilliantly. but in "match point", for example, she reaches 'badness' in her final scenes (when she's not being seductive like in the beginning, where she's very good yes).

also, I know people like to go "bless her for working with 'auteurs'", but that alone doesn't mean she has turned into this great actress.

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

I think the idea is for actors to extend/test their range that makes them great and that comes with working with different directors and in different genres...not things they can do really well in the same four corners and in their sleep

December 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

I can see what are you talking about Nathaniel, there are a lot of similarities between Kidman and Johansson's careers. I've been following Scarlett since I saw her in "Lost In Translation" and this "rebirth phase" is making me believe in her as an actress once again. She was overlooked by the AMPAS, but I kinda believe she has good chances in getting nominated for "Her" (call me crazy, but I believe it can happen).

I would love to see ScarJo working with Woody once again (maybe for his 2015 film), Lars von Trier, Jacques Audiard, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese (they worked together for D&G commercial) or David O. Russell... It would be more than just "interesting" for sure!

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

P.S.: Don't you think similarities between ScarJo and Kidman would be even more interesting if Scarlett would get the role of Daisy in Baz Lhurman's "The Great Gatsby"? (it seems she was going to get the role, but then they went for Carey)

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Carmen -- this is a fair point. we should wait until she does that ;)

marcelo -also a fair point but you're more like to get there if you try it, you know?

December 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel, I would never knock either tradition (as I'm sure you know), but they do differ in terms of (perceived) warmth, (perceived) physicality and, of course, the male gaze.

December 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

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