By John H. Foote
2019 has been the year of Scarlett Johansson. Sure her character Black Widow sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame (2019) but that was just the beginning. She has given her two finest performances this year, one a supporting role, the other a lead and the finest work of her career. Next year sees her stand-alone Black Widow film, a prequel given her death in this year’s blockbuster, but it stands as one of the most anticipated films of next summer.
With her sultry, husky voice, beauty, smoky eyes and curvy body Scarlett Johansson is sex incarnate.
But yet she is so much more.
Among the finest actresses of her generation she has evolved and grown right before our eyes, from Grace, the wounded teenager in The Horse Whisperer (1998) to the lonely newlywed who is adrift in Tokyo in Lost in Translation (2003), to the femme fatale, the dangerously sexy Nora in Match Point (2005), to the mysterious killer alien in Under the Skin (2013) to the drug-induced genius in Lucy (2014), the snappy, oversexed Esther Williams type Star she plays in Hail Caesar! (2016), this year’s warm, wonderful but doomed German mother to a Nazi zealot in Jojo Rabbit (2019) right through to Nicole, seeking divorce but conflicted by her love in the extraordinary Marriage Story (2019) the performance of her career. In addition, she is the highest-paid actress in movies right now, commanding between $14 to $16 million per film plus a % of the profits. Her work as Black Widow in The Avengers franchise made her a global superstar, recognized around the world, and with great fame comes opportunity. She has worked with some of the finest directors in movies including the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers, Sofia Coppola, Robert Redford, she was a Woody Allen muse for a while, Jonathan Grazer, Luc Besson, Taika Waititi and of course Noah Baumbach. Waititi believes cinema work has not yet tapped into her deft comedic gifts, which she has proven in films for the brothers Coen and this year in Jojo Rabbit. I think we have a great deal to look forward too with this fine, often daring young actress. Beyond her blockbuster, stand-alone Black Widow (2020), coming next summer, she will be dazzling us for years. Here are her ten best performances in descending order.
10. THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998)
Just a teenager when she landed the coveted role of Grace in Robert Redford’s film, Johansson was very good as a young girl who loses a leg in an accident that nearly kills her beloved horse Pilgrim. The damage to girl and horse prevents anyone from riding the chestnut animal, but Grace and her mother travel west to find a horse whisperer with hopes to cure both girl and horse, and their traumatized souls. While crossing a highway, a truck lost control and at top speed crashed into a reared up Pilgrim and Grace. Very slowly Redford, as the whisperer earns back the trust and realizes what no one did, that horse was protecting the one he loved best. Johansson is wonderful as Grace displaying a maturity well beyond her years.
9. THE NANNY DIARIES (2006)
An interesting cautionary comedy-drama with Johansson as a university student who takes a job as a nanny for money but also to understand human behaviour. She is the proverbial fish out of water among the elite and super-rich of New York, caring for a son a powerful couple barely seems to know is alive. Laura Linney is pinched and nasty as the mother, who insists on no names choosing to call Johansson’s Annie, nanny, always. As she bonds with their young son, she witnesses the fact that the parents neglect the boy, are more than happy to leave him with her so they can travel or shop or go to a spa. As it becomes progressively worse, the husband (an insidious Paul Giamatti) hits on Annie aggressively and the wife fakes a pregnancy for attention. Annie leaves, or s fired, but not before leaving a tape that rattles the wealthy wife to her core and she makes life-changing decisions finally apologizing to Annie. It is a lovely performance from Johansson, suggestive of the depth she could bring to a character.
8. HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
In the Coen brother comedy about fifties Hollywood, Johansson is marvelous as a beautiful swimming star of silly films that feature her in pools ala Esther Williams, swimming sweetheart of the fifties. But this woman is no sweet and innocent star, she is a ballsy, sex-addicted star who it seems will sleep with anyone provided the studio can protect her from humiliation. Johansson is very funny as the foul-mouthed, oversexed dame, a real broad performance that works within the context of the film. Perhaps Taikiki saw this when he was casting the role of the cheery mother to a ten year Nazi in Jojo Rabbit. She was perfection, be it the overproduced swimming sequences, coming out of the water smiling, raging at not hitting her mark or talking tough to the legal team about hiding her recent pregnancy not aware of who the father might be. Very funny and equally unexpected.
7. LUCY (2014)
Luc Besson directed this thriller about a young woman drawn into dangerous Asian drug ring exploiting a unique drug that unleashes untold powers when it hits the brain. Used as a drug mule when her intentions are mistaken, she ingests a great deal of the drugs and her brain is operating on full power. Suddenly she can speak every existing language, fight the most dangerous martial artists and win, communicate telepathically, do quite literally the impossible. But there is a price, for the great powers she has a life span and it is ticking very fast before she becomes part of the universe. Her goal is to get the drug into the right hands and deal with the men who have taken her life from her and so she does that. Johansson is superb, growing more disconnected from her emotions as her mind expands, reminding one of Spock but with heart. In addition to being a great performance, it is a stunning piece of physical acting. It is a rare actioner with a brain and a great deal of heart.
6. MATCH POINT (2005)
Is Nora evil? No, but she is dangerous using her sexual prowess to get what she wants. When she begins her affair with a former tennis teacher who stumbled into a marriage to an obscenely wealthy family, Nora believes she has hit the motherlode. The problem starts when he makes t clear he is nervous about leaving his wife and losing everything. Nora does not care, the sexy woman wants what she wants and is about to get crazy to get it. She begins calling him at home, at his in-laws, she begins tracking him down and threatens to tell his wife the whole story. So she has to go. Woody Allen cast Johansson in several films but her best work was in this one. Nora is needy is a sort of pathological sort of way, a dangerous woman to be sure and not to be trifled with. And that is what sets in motion her murder. The film loses an edge of nastiness once she is gone, and we mourn her absence.
5. GHOST WORLD (2001)
Though a supporting role as the best friend of Enid (Thora Birch) this pair of angry young women walk their lives scorching the earth. They make fun of everyone judged not as cool as they are, and once they graduate high school they have plans to get an apartment and live together, starting their lives off right. They are not gay but they belong together. Johansson’s character has a foul mouth but is far more ambitious than Birch who is unsure of what she really does want, and she might not even what to share an apartment with her friend. Very much the realist, Johansson makes clear her friend better get together, because she is moving n without her. But we still see her hurts to say that to one who means so much to her. The best film about female teen angst.
4. UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
In a triumphant performance as a cold, calculating and lethal alien who traps men before murdering them, feeding off them, Johansson won the admiration of academic critics, those elitist snobby ones I am proud to be no part of. Icy focused, she looks at people as a predator does, as a panther might look at a human being in the jungle and once locked on there is no doubt to the humans’ fate. This was one of the first times the actress was seen nude on screen and she was fearless in this fine performance, showing little emotion, but intensely intense throughout. Never had the actress been so fearsome, so defiantly sexual and so electrifying on the screen. The director Jonathan Grazer obviously saw what others did not and cast the actress, rather bravely. It is a great piece of science fiction and one believes the actress as an alien, her body language altered to move just slightly different without losing any of the sexuality she exudes. Very few actors could have portrayed this role as perfectly as she did.
3. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
Really, this is the role that catapulted the actress into the big leagues. As a recently married young woman, recently graduated from college she has no idea what she wants to do with her life, she travels with her photographer husband to Tokyo where she is alone most of the time. One evening she meets an American movie star, beautifully portrayed with melancholy by Bill Murray and they begin a friendship. Though it never becomes anything more than a friendship, we know how easily it could, and it would be a thing of beauty. They are soul mates, so obviously soul mates who are not to be together in this life. Each wants more than this, as the song goes, but they cannot have more without damaging what they have. They share a bed one night, but the most intimate they get is when he gently touches her foot. Their goodbye is a mystery as we never hear what he says to her, but I suspect he tells her how much she means to him, how much he loves her and how they belong together and he will never see her again nor forget her. Johansson is luminous in the role and we understand exactly why Murray’s movie star, who could have anyone is so captivated. Why was he nominated for an Oscar and she was not? Shameful.
2. JOJO RABBIT (2019)
A comic revelation as the cheery, life force, upbeat mother to a Nazi zealot who she puts up with, Johansson is a triumph in this film, exuding comic charm, sexuality and disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing. As the war winds own and American and Soviet forces draw ever closer to the centre of the city, she tries to teach her son Jojo that the war is wrong, and the Hitler he so idolizes is a madman. The boy will not have it and his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler, portrayed with goofy warmth by the film’s director Taika Waititi. Johansson is wonderful, whether dancing with her son, bouncing down steps, her shoes eye to eye with her son, or smiling cheerfully with her boy, the fact she is hiding a young Jewish teenager in her closet deepens our respect for her. Her son comes eye to eye with her shoes one last time, as she hangs in the town square, discovered to be an enemy of the Nazis. The fact she is utterly doomed makes remembering her joy for life all the more heartbreaking. Brilliant.
1. MARRIAGE STORY (2019)
Her astonishing performance as Nicole, the young wife, and mother who wants out of her marriage is the finest of her career and among the very best of the year. Once an up and coming actress who starred in a very popular film, she gave it up for her husband, a rising stage director, who she worked with him to help create his theatre company. Then came motherhood and she lost track of herself. She feels he stifles her, and it is a risky performance because to the audience Charlie, her husband, portrayed by Adam Driver, seems like a pretty decent guy! What is she experiencing that we cannot see? We do see she is very unhappy and yes, that is often the reason for divorce. He seems to have put his career above hers, despite the fact, in the beginning, she provided the star power. There are anguished arguments that tear their souls apart, one in particular in which each says horrific things to the other, and a gradual realization that the divorce is going to happen, their marriage is going to end despite the fact there is a great deal of love for each other. How often do divorce films end with hope? This one does, and it is in the way she looks at Charlie walking away from her across a street and noticing his shoelace is undone, calling after him and going to him to do it up. No question the love between them is still very deep. In a role that could have made her the villain, Johansson elevates the part to something very special, a living, breathing character trying to stay relevant. Brilliant. Driver is getting much of the Oscar talk, but without Johansson, he could not have done what he did, which he has stated, more than once, publicly.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.