“I always feel like I have to prove myself as an actor, otherwise you get lazy if you’re not slightly terrified that you’re going to fail all the time.” – Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson, an ordinary child with extraordinary talents, started off early in the film industry. Her roles, which cannot be typecast into a particular genre, has led her to become one of the highest-grossing female actors of all time. However, Johansson has always been vocal about the disparities that lie within Hollywood regarding misogyny and pay gap, an aspect that makes her an even more inspirational figure in the film industry.
Johansson, a talented actress and singer, has accomplished various impossible feats in her life. Unfortunately, due to her large presence in the MCU films, in which she is identified as the Russian spy Black Widow, her other characters tend to be overshadowed despite being equally (if not more) brilliant.
Johansson is a brave artist and a risk-taker in every sense. From portraying an extraterrestrial seductress in Glazer’s Under the Skin to partaking in a risky role as a mere 17-year-old in Sofia Coppola’s production Lost in Translation, she has never let any obstacle in her path hinder her from achieving what she wants. Versatile and phenomenal, Scarlett has a commanding on-screen presence that captivates the audience from beginning till the very end. Her role in Noah Baumbach film Marriage Story has won millions of hearts as she does justice to the role of an anxious woman recuperating from divorce.
Johansson has, however, been embroiled in controversies following the #MeToo movement, a time in which she refused to condemn her friend and frequent collaborator, Woody Allen. “It’s a required part of your film history to know who Woody is,” she said. “His movies are so wonderful, and not just funny but so insightful about human behaviour… I just adored working with Woody. He was more than I could have ever dreamed of. I’d do it a million times over”.
Despite all controversies and allegations, Scarlett Johansson, by dint of hard work and wonderful performances, has managed to carve out a unique role in Hollywood and continues to grow on that with every passing role. Here, on reflection of her contribution to cinema, we explore Scarlett Johansson’s 20 best peformances.
Scarlett Johansson 20 best films:
20. An American Rhapsody (Éva Gárdos, 2001)
One of Johansson’s early roles, An American Rhapsody is an autobiographical work based on the life experiences of director Éva Gárdos. It follows a 15-year-old girl who struggles with questions of identity after being reunited with her parents who left her behind while fleeing an oppressive political regime.
Although the film is severely unpolished, Johansson puts in a sincere performance as that troubled teenager who tries to figure out who she is in Los Angeles. The film is largely forgotten now but it is a memorable early work by Johansson who was still finding her footing as an actress.
19. A Love Song for Bobby Long (Shainee Gabel, 2004)
Gabel’s 2004 psychological drama is an adaptation of Ronald Everett Capps’ novel which features Johansson as a young woman who escapes an abusive relationship to come back to her hometown after the death of her mother. Upon her return, she finds that an alcoholic professor of literature (played by John Travolta) inhabits her mother’s home.
An interesting interpretation of Southern romanticism, A Love Song for Bobby Long is a celebration as well as a critique of everything that makes life more tolerable. For her fantastic performance, Johansson picked up a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Actress category.
18. Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)
It is important to mention that live-action adaptations of cult anime almost never go well and this 2017 effort by Rupert Sanders is no exception. Although some fans were eager to see a remake of Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi masterpiece, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell failed to capture even a fraction of the anime’s decadent grandeur.
Johansson received criticism for whitewashing as well as racism for portraying an Asian character in an anime that is about Asian culture contextualised within Asian frameworks. However, she did what was hired to do and was believable as a badass cyborg.
17. Hail, Caesar! (Coen brothers, 2016)
One of the lesser-known projects by the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a comedy revolving around a fixer (played by Josh Brolin) working in Hollywood during the ’50s. Johansson plays the role of an actress modelled after Esther Williams who finds out that she is pregnant while her film is in production.
Featuring the likes of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill, Hail, Caesar! received critical and commercial success at the time of its release but has depreciated in public perception with each subsequent year. It did manage to earn an Oscar bid for Best Production Design.
16. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003)
Even those who don’t follow art are familiar with the famous painting by Vermeer titled ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which has attracted the attention of many scholars over the years. In this 2003 film by Peter Webber, Johansson stars as that titular girl while Colin Firth fills the shoes of the legendary painter.
Kate Hudson was originally cast in the starring role but after she pulled out, the opportunity fell in the lap of Johansson who made the most out of it by delivering a nuanced performance. For her work, she received multiple accolades and several nominations including a Best Actress Golden Globe bid.
15. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)
In her first collaboration with Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson plays the seductive struggling American actress and Tom Hewett’s fiancee, Nola Rice. Chris Wilton, a retired tennis player and Tom’s mentor, is instantly attracted to her and proposes to begin a clandestine affair. When Nola gets pregnant with Chris’ child, it poses a threat that leads to an ominous ending.
Chris is a vile social climber who was supposedly “doing just fine” until Nola showed up. Johansson plays the classic heartbreaker in Woody Allen films, seductive and beautiful. Compared to her previous roles where she was imbued with innocence, Johansson is sexy and dangerous, mature and authoritative. She is the embodiment of lust and frenzy that drives the protagonist Chris to stop at nothing to ‘obtain’ her.
14. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2001)
Morbid and possibly not one of their best films, The Man Who Wasn’t There revolves around Ed Crane, a barber, who decides to blackmail his wife Doris and her lover for money to commence a dry cleaning business. However, when it does not go according to plan, he decides to become the manager for Birdy, a talentless musician who is also his friend’s daughter.
This was Scarlett Johansson’s first collaboration with the Coen brothers and she plays the wistful Birdy whose on-screen presence is slight yet indelible. Her piano notes transfix the brutish and melancholy Ed. She is the manifestation of the beautiful escape he craves, the escape that shall provide him respite from the drudgery of his own life, however, like her name, she is as swift as a bird; elusive, tender and full of surprises.
13. Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006)
Sondra Pransky, an aspiring journalist, stumbles upon the murder of an investigative reporter but becomes the prime suspect herself. Aided by the British ghost as well as the magician, Sid, Sondra is determined to uncover the true killer’s identity.
This was Scarlett Johansson’s second film with Woody Allen who had her in mind for the character of Sondra; her distinguished “funny” quality, which he noticed after working with her on Match Point serves as a determining factor. Although the film has been rated as Allen’s weakest, Johansson is no longer the obscure extra playing the mere love interest but a lead protagonist who is indeed funny.
12. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
Indoctrinated by Nazi beliefs, 10-year-old Jojo is a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, and like his imaginary friend, the bufoonish Hitler, he loathes the Jews. Unbeknownst to him, his mother Rosie is hiding his late sister Inge’s friend Elsa Korr in their house. Although Jojo tries his level best to evict her out, Rosie’s determination and Elsa’s affectionate behaviour gradually wins him over.
With an incredible cast delivering indelible performances, Jojo Rabbit is a tragi-comic film that gained acclaim this year. Its irreverent humour and audacious approach to presenting a satire on war and anti-semitism does no resonate with all which has led to various criticism regarding their comical and hilarious portrayal of the Nazis. Scarlett Johansson plays the role of the doting mother Rosie who is secretly anti-Nazi. She harbours mutual love and respect for Jews and her compassionate nature is juxtaposed to her young son’s hateful attitude towards the community. She undertakes great risk to try and protect Elsa; her presence is the ray of light and hope in times of great moral darkness. She is most crucial to the unfurling of the storyline until the very end as her fate determines Jojo’s change of heart. Rosie is an embodiment of the kindness, compassion and goodness that resided within some ‘natives’ during the war who helped shelter the Jews. Johansson is spectacular and moving as a loving mother and the viewers cannot help but weep at her inevitable outcome.
“You look a tiger in the eye. And trust without fear. That’s what it is to be a woman.”
11. Vicky Christina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008)
In her third collaboration with Allen, Johansson plays Christina, one of the two American women who have travelled to Barcelona to spend their summer. They meet the artist Juan Antonio and get floored by him. The latter is attracted to them both as well as smitten by his emotionally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena. This leads to altercations and trouble in the friends’ paradise.
Of all Allen films, Johansson delivers her best performance here as Christina, the free-spirited bohemian girl. She is not a stereotypical hippie; she is in search of something that seems too hard to achieve, as she is conflicted over her own desires and goals. The aesthetic beauty of the shoot locations heighten the sense of love and loss; an irreplaceable sense of melancholy pervades the film. Johansson manages to bring her character to life in a nuanced manner, her acting is “syrup: fluid and sweet”, which enriches the “beguiling tragicomedy” that is Vicky Christina Barcelona.
“I don’t know what I want. I only know what I don’t want.”
10. Manny & Lo (Lisa Kreuger, 1996)
11-year-old Amanda (Manny) and 16-year-old Laurel (Lo) are on the run; they run away from foster homes and seek shelter wherever they can. However, when Lo gets pregnant, the girls realise it is nearly impossible for them to handle the crisis alone. They kidnap a clerk at a baby supply store, Elaine. However, they soon develop a wonderful bonding, depending on each other emotionally.
As the trio form an unlikely familial bond, the film is heartwarming, to say the least. The girls, who had been placed in foster homes after the death of their mother, finally find the warmth and love of a mother in Elaine. Johansson, the youngest of the cast, yet the most profound as young, rebellious Manny as well as the narrator, steals the show with her maturity and sharp understanding of their predicament.
9. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018)
Odd and funny with pervasive sardonic humour, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs revolves around the human-dog friendship. When the fictional town of Megasaki is infected with a contagious canine virus, the authoritarian Mayor banishes all dogs to the Trash Island, later known as the Isle of Dogs, and plans to exterminate them. Atari, who loses his protector dog Spots in this process embarks on a journey, determined to find his companion. On reaching the island, he enlists the help of Chief and Nutmeg as well as their scrappy pack of dog followers to try and find his best friend.
In her first film with Wes Anderson, Johansson’s acerbic personality is in sync with the director’s. She plays the ex-show dog Nutmeg, who is also Chief’s girlfriend. She is empathetic and helpful, almost a “noir figure” in the dark and brutal atmospheric film. One falls in Nutmeg and adores and respects her spirit throughout the film.
“Oh, I’m full-grown sweetheart, you don’t have to worry about me.”
8. In Good Company (Paul Weitz, 2004)
After a middle-aged advertising executive, Dan’s company gets taken over by a large international company, his boss is the much younger, 26-year-old recently divorced Carter. The latter takes a romantic interest in Dan’s 18-year-old daughter Alex who is a student at New York University. This complicates Dan and Carter’s relationship and the comedy ensues.
Dan is a loving father who feels humiliated on being assigned a cocky young Carter as his boss; the latter dating his daughter further complicates the issue and disturbs him. Johansson as the young and beautiful Alex is an absolute showstopper. She is enigmatic and charing, and just like her initial rules, she seems wise beyond her years. Like Alex, she adores her father but learns to prioritise her happiness before anything else which is quite heartwarming to watch. As Roger Ebert said, as Alex, Johansson “creates a zone of her own importance into which men are drawn not so much by lust as by the feeling that she knows something about life that they might be able to learn”.
7. Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
An American student at Taipei, Lucy, gets tricked unknowingly to work as a ‘drug mule’. During a scuffle, she consumes the nootropic CPH4 drug which enables her psychokinetic abilities in Lucy. She embarks on a spacetime journey to discover secrets, while her body transforms beyond human.
Besson reportedly wanted to find an actress “who could be believable as extremely vulnerable, as well as superpowered, when her exposure to an illicit substance inadvertently makes her acquire incredible skills.” Scarlett Johansson bagged the role due to her commitment and discipline.
Johansson is charming on screen, the film sows in the seeds of the notion that a woman can save humanity and the world. While some may ponder over the hidden easter eggs in the film, others might simply question ‘What the fuck is this film?’. Lucy ends on an ambiguous and ominous note where her omniscient voiceover can be heard stating:
“I am everywhere. Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.”
6. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Based on Daniel Clowes’ comics of the same name, the film revolves around a pair of best friends, Enid and Rebecca who are both cynical, social outcasts. Their friendship goes through a trying time when Enid takes interest in an older man, loner Seymour’s love life and grows determined to help him find someone. The girls grow apart and while Rebecca moves on with her life, having received a scholarship to art school, Enid is stuck in this continuum.
Although Thora Birch as Enid is the protagonist of the story, Scarlett steals the show. In her short on-screen time, she manages to have a magnetic effect on the audience. Her dry and acerbic humour and indifferent voice is a perfect fit for the cynical Rebecca. However, she is not a blockhead and is eager to grow into a mature version of herself. Both Birch and Johansson are uncannily similar to our teenage selves with their “adolescent agonies” and general dread for the outside world. Although the film later steers in Enid and Seymour’s direction, the absence of Rebecca is strongly felt in the film till the very end as we tend to miss the tender friendship shared by the two girls.
“He doesn’t even need the wheelchair, he’s just totally lazy.”
5. Marvel Films (various directors, 2008-)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had a massive fan following. With recurrent superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye comprising an invincible group termed the Avengers, evil forces are defeated and cities are saved. While all these superheroes have standalone movies (except Hawkeye and Black Widow; the latter is soon getting her film), there are several others, namely Spider-man, Doctor Strange, Ant-man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther who are fan favourites and have appeared together in the biggest ensemble film of all time, Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Natasha Romanoff initially starred as the Russian antagonist-spy in Iron Man after which she became a recurring ally of the Avengers. Scarlett Johansson, who plays a magnificent and resplendent Black Widow is smart, cunning and agile. She later revealed that Marvel renewed her contract based on the “demand of the character” not having anticipated the “great reaction” of the audience to her performance. Do we smell teeny-weeny misogyny? Scarlett, who initially had “a bit of a freak-out moment” on seeing the catsuit, thinking if she could perform her stunts in the tight one-piece, agreed that she was tailormade for the role of the Black Widow. “The Black Widow character resonated with me… [She] is a superhero, but she’s also human. She’s small, but she’s strong… She is dark and has faced death so many times that she has a deep perspective on the value of life… It’s hard not to admire her.” Bruce Banner aka the Hulk is Natasha’s love interest. Fans are waiting excitedly for Scarlett’s standalone film that is set to be released in 2021.
“At some point, we all have to choose between what the world wants you to be and who you are.”
4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
“I have a place about 30 minutes away. Will you come with me there?”
In this film, Scarlett Johansson is both a watcher and predator of men. Showing humanity via an alien perspective, the film revolves around an otherworldly woman, played by Johansson, who seduces and preys on men in the Scottish Highlands, under the alias of Laura. The film’s haunting tone subverts the stereotypical sexual aggression; here, the men are vulnerable while the woman is is aggressive and predatory.
Although it had failed at the box office, Scarlett had received acclaim for her splendid performance. The film, hideously splendid, was received as “far and away, the best picture”. It was stunning yet disturbing; Johansson explained her decision to join this “prickly sci-fi”, stating: “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.”
As an extraterrestrial woman on a literal manhunt, she is grotesque yet enigmatic. Subversive, the film exposes the ugly side of being a woman’s object of affection. The constant dichotomy between beauty and hideousness is heightened when her emotional vacancy and menace is overwhelmed by her ability to feel wherein the tragedy lies. Johansson is terrifying, magnetic, beautiful and lovely in this film.
3. Her (Spike Jonze, 2014)
Spike Jonze’s brilliant 2014 film Her leaves a profound impact on the audience, irrespective of whether they enjoy the romantic genre or not. The film is a blend of the sci-fi and rom-com genres, bringing with it the best of both worlds. Theodore Twombly is lonely and depressed, he is a recluse who composes letters on behalf of people who cannot find the right words to articulate their emotions. Ironically, Theodore is not very good at expressing his feelings and is going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. Struggling to come to terms with reality, he escapes it completely when he befriends (and later falls in love with) an artificial intelligence who prefers to call herself Samantha. Though intangible, Samantha leaves an everlasting impact on Theodore’s mind, helping him cope with his feelings. Surreal and bizarre, this love story takes an interesting turn when Theodore attempts to get physically intimate with a woman embodying Samantha yet fails as he realises how unbridgeable the gap is.
Her, which is both an insightful and unsettling take on the near future, addresses a very important question “How to be Human?” Joaquin Phoenix is meticulous in his portrayal of the lonely and forlorn Theodore, who is desperate to find someone who understands him. He is tormented by his messy divorce and finally seeks solace in an AI which is not physically present yet manages to add colour to his monochromatic life. Scarlett Johansson lends her voice to Samantha and her soothing voice mesmerises the audience. She is fun and flirty and behaves just like she has been programmed. Though Johansson never appears on the screen, she is omnipresent.
This peculiar human-AI relationship is quite convincing and it puts forward the popular notion that falling in love would lead to inevitable heartbreaks which in turn could be beautiful and magical. It ends on a solemn yet promising note and the sunrise would indicate a new relationship. This film is a tear-jerker; the audience would oddly be at peace once they immerse themselves in this story, yet quickly snap out of it in fear, dreading the reality that is right around the corner.
2. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Sofia Coppola’s film brings about a fuzzy feeling in your heart while breaking it at the same time. The main characters share a “romantic melancholy” that permeates through the screen. A middle-aged American actor Bob Harris, having faced marital problems and the anxieties of being at the waning phase of his career, goes to Tokyo to promote Suntory whiskey. Charlotte, a Yale University graduate, accompanies her photographer husband to Japan. While her husband pursues his dreams, Charlotte grows more disillusioned, till she stumbles upon Bob, and together, they form a beautiful bond of poetic conversations and shared sadness.
The title of the film is apt and sets a melancholy mood. The shared whisper at the end of the film is not discernible; somehow, it is reflective of the hushed and intimate affair the two hapless souls shared. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray work in tandem to bring out the best in one another; Bill’s tender and intimate side is portrayed for the very first time on-screen while he helps bring out the disillusionment and loneliness in a girl who has followed her ambitious husband without a fixed purpose of her own. The juxtaposition of their crises is quite interesting as they are quite similar yet different. In Coppola’s autobiographical tale, Charlotte is perfect and resplendent as she slowly outgrows her innocence, much like Scarlett herself, “the cute little girl with that husky voice”, who was a mere 17-year-old when she played this part maturely and with the perfect amount of indulgence.
“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.”
1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
“You and I both know you chose this life. You wanted it until you didn’t.”
Noah Baumbach’s film is a stinging tale of rocky marriages that end in divorces and how it affects the life of the couple as well as the child. Theatre director Charlie Barber is in an estranged marital relationship with his wife, Nicole. Following disagreements and heartbreaks, the couple decides to part ways, sharing custody of their son Henry. The legal world of divorce and separation is, however, extremely messy, and threatens the sanctity of their friendship.
In what is supposedly one of the most realistic films to date, Baumbach elaborates on how the process of going through a divorce is an isolated experience. It celebrates the end of an era shared closely by two people who find it difficult to fill in the gulf created in their respective lives after their respective departures. It is a tender commentary on the uncoupling of a marital union and sharing the custody of the child. Detailed and tastefully balanced, Marriage Story is devoid of the usual melodrama that dominates the screen in such movies. Via the growing anxiety, tension and heartache, the film preserves the precious moments that follow legal as well as emotional separation.
Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal in the balanced script; they play their roles, as two individuals who love each other yet cannot be together, with effortless ease. Their chemistry is undeniable on-screen, as is their emotional anguish for having to deal with contentious divorce proceedings. The film is a precious masterpiece that via its calm, composed pace and heart-rending narrative make the viewers want to re-evaluate themselves as well as their relationships.