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Scarlett Johansson: from starlet to sci-fi queen

Scarlett Johansson floundered after her early success but has reinvented herself as a high-kicking futuristic siren


Sleepy charisma: Johansson in her new film, Ghost in the Shell

Sleepy charisma: Johansson in her new film, Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Scarlett Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation


Sleepy charisma: Johansson in her new film, Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson has been in the spotlight for so long, it's hard to believe she's only 32. Then again, she was just 17 when she made her breakthrough playing a dreamy, unhappily married young woman in Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola's low-budget 2003 film was a surprise hit, and despite Bill Murray's Oscar-nominated turn as a jaded, laconic film actor, it was Johansson who attracted much of the critical attention.

She had an effortless, sleepy charisma that augmented her natural beauty, a smoky, husky voice that belied her extreme youth and reminded one of Lauren Bacall. Her potential was obvious; her admirers predicted big things.

For a while, though, it looked as if Johansson might slip through the cracks. Her famous lips and voluptuous figure seemed out of step with the lean, mean, stick-thin Noughties, and finding a role that worked for her wasn't easy. Dodgy period dramas (The Other Boleyn Girl), limp rom-coms (He's Just Not That Into You) and family-friendly movies (We Bought a Zoo) didn't seem to fit the bill, and six or seven years ago it seemed as if Johansson was coasting ever so gently towards irrelevance.

Who could have foreseen that she would reinvent herself as a high-kicking sci-fi superstar? It happened partly by chance, in that Joss Whedon and co decided to cast her in the hugely profitable Avengers franchise. But Johansson also displayed iron nerve and a willingness to experiment by choosing to appear in obscure, low-budget shockers whose success was by no means guaranteed. Sci-fi helped her recalibrate her career, and now the world is her oyster.


Scarlett Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Scarlett Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Scarlett Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Johansson's latest futuristic fantasy is Ghost in the Shell, a big-budget, high-concept sci-fi crime drama based on the cult manga series by Masamune Shirow. It was released here yesterday and is expected to do brisk business, not least because of spectacular trailers showing Johansson leaping about in a bodysuit that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

The film is set 30 or 40 years in the future and stars Johansson as The Major, leader of a task force dedicated to tracking down a new and rampant breed of cyber criminals and hackers. She has a personal interest in this work: after a terrible childhood accident, her brain was housed in a cyber body which leaves her prone to hacking herself. And her pursuit of saboteurs is frequently interrupted by an existential search for her own identity.

Fancy stuff, but most of the advance publicity around Ghost in the Shell involved anger at Johansson's casting. The original Major, obviously, had been drawn as Japanese, so here was a classic case of Hollywood 'whitewashing'. Umbrage online flowed like cheap white wine, but in Japan no one seemed to mind at all.

In fact, most manga fans were delighted to hear that Johansson would be playing The Major, and veteran film-maker Mamoru Oshii, who directed a highly regarded 1995 animated version of Ghost in the Shell, said he thought she was perfect for the role. He also said that, as The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is "entirely assumed", there is "no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her". It's also been pointed out that a big-budget sci-fi franchise that may run to three films would not have been green-lit without a star substantial enough to carry it.

And Johansson is a big star, an actress with enough clout to eclipse most of her male counterparts. Last year she was named the top-grossing actor of 2016 by Forbes magazine, and she's already the 10th-highest grossing movie star of all time. These figures are of course somewhat skewed by the runaway success of all things Marvel, but even so, Johansson is now a marquee name who can get any film made if she's attached to it, and her recent work suggests she has the talent to move beyond sci-fi into comic and dramatic roles.

Johansson has been acting for a very long time. The child of a Danish father and a Jewish mother, she grew up in New York's Greenwich Village and was auditioning by the time she was seven. She made her film debut at the age of nine in Rob Reiner's rather forgettable 1994 comedy North, and two years later made a bigger noise playing an orphan waif in Lisa Krueger's indie drama Manny & Lo. A reviewer with the San Francisco Chronicle perceptively noted her "peaceful aura" and predicted that "if she can get through puberty with that aura undisturbed, she could become an important actress".

After honing her skills at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where many a high-profile acting career has started, she got more good notices in Ghost World (2001), a dark satire starring herself and Thora Birch as teenage social misfits making their first tentative experiments with the opposite sex. But it was Lost in Translation that give Johansson the perfect platform for her talent.

Sofia Coppola's beautifully orchestrated drama was a mood piece first and foremost, set mainly in a high-rise Tokyo hotel and starring Murray as Bob Harris, a has-been movie star who's come to Japan to debase himself by appearing in a television ad for whiskey for a handsome fee. This and the state of his marriage depresses him, and he floats unhappily around the hotel bar until he meets Johansson's character, Charlotte.

She's also married, to a self-absorbed celebrity photographer played by Giovanni Ribisi who abandons her for days on end as he goes about his tacky business. Meanwhile, Bob and Charlotte hit it off, and despite their 30-odd year age difference, a romance of sorts blossoms.

That none of this ever descended to overt creepiness was a testament to Coppola's skill, but also to the subtlety of both lead performances. Critics referred constantly to Johansson's on-screen serenity: before Lost in Translation she was more or less unknown, but that note-perfect performance changed everything.

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However, Hollywood didn't initially quite know what to do with her, and over the next four or five years, she floundered. Michael Bay's Island (2005) was a massive and very expensive flop, and while her three-film collaboration with Woody Allen was interesting, the veteran director tended to cast her as a siren and her comic talents were sorely underused.

She was too intense for family comedies like The Nanny Diaries, too edgy for conventional romantic comedies (In Good Company, He's Just Not That Into You), and while she would have made the perfect film-noir femme fatale, Brian De Palma's Black Dahlia conclusively proved that no one knows how to make them any more.

Her association with Marvel would point her in the right direction. Johansson's first appearance as Russian spy and martial-arts expert Natasha Romanoff, alias Black Widow, was in the 2010 vehicle Iron Man 2, where she more than held her own against wise-cracking superhero-movie veteran Robert Downey. For the first time, we saw her move beyond the territory of passive sex object to authoritative protagonist, and she graduated to action with aplomb. She was part of the dream team that turned Avengers Assemble (2012) into one of the biggest grossing films of all time, and thereafter might have been content to rake in the Marvel money and concentrate on other interests (she sings, and runs a number of sideline businesses). But Johansson would appear to be interested in acting.

You'll see few more incongruous sights in cinema than Johansson wandering through the slums of Glasgow attracting the stares of civilian passers-by, but her casting in Jonathan Glazer's brilliant 2013 horror film Under the Skin was inspired. She played an unnamed extraterrestrial succubus who assumes the form of a beautiful woman in order to lure gullible men to their doom.

She cannot have known that the film would work, but went above and beyond the call of duty in possibly her best-ever performance, appearing nude and doing a brilliant job of seeming blank, emotionless.

It was a revelation, and the first of a string of surprising performances that would establish Johansson as an actress of genuine range. In Spike Jonze's Her (2013), she voiced a sultry arfitically intelligent computer-operating system with whom a lonely man falls in love; in Luc Besson's Lucy (2014) she was brilliant as a young woman who develops alarming telekinetic abilities after being forced to take an experimental drug; and Johansson was hilarious playing a foul-mouthed 1940s movie star in the Coen Brother's 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar! Her recent work on Saturday Night Live has proved that performance was no fluke, and a few weeks back she hilariously lampooned Washington queen Ivanka Trump in a well-directed skit.

She's now, alongside Jennifer Lawrence, the most successful and sought-after actress in Hollywood, and the sangfroid with which she's handled all the ups and downs in her professional and personal life is impressive. She's cool under fire, and well used to the unwelcome attentions of the gutter press. They were all over her after she married and then acrimoniously split up with Ryan Reynolds, and a subsequent relationship with Sean Penn was eagerly pursued by the tabloids.

All seemed sweetness and light when she became engaged to French businessman Romain Dauriac, and had a child with him. But they separated last summer.

While most Hollywood stars would gloss over all this and start waffling about "conscious uncoupling", Johansson is more realistic. Monogamy isn't "a natural instinct for human beings", she has said, and "can be hard work for some people".

You can't say fairer than that.

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