The 2004 European film, "A Good Woman," is just making its way to American screens this week. In the adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play, Helen Hunt plays Mrs. Erlynne, a broke seductress visiting the coast of Italy in the 1930s who sets her sights on wealthy American tourist Robert Windemere (Mark Umbers), undeterred by his marriage to the lovely young Meg. As if the plot alone weren't enough to make it easy to choose sides, the fact that Meg is played by Scarlett Johansson gives us one more reason to dislike Helen Hunt.
Throughout a string of movies that range from period pieces to big-budget sci-fi and everything in between, the 21-year-old Johansson has developed a reputation as a singular actress in a sea of Disneyfied pop princesses and interchangeable ingénues. And it's not just her charmingly crooked teeth and pigeon-toed stance that separate her from the homogeneous masses.
Rob Reiner's 1994 comedy, "North," the tale of a young boy (Elijah Wood) who "divorces" his parents and travels the globe looking for perfect replacements, was both a box-office and critical dud. (Roger Ebert used the word "hated" in his review about a dozen times.) But "North" may be warmly remembered for featuring Scarlett Johansson in her first screen role — even if her part as the daughter of one potential set of 'rents is barely more than a cameo.
Scarlett, the child actor, had some more bit parts over the next few years in films like "Just Cause" (1995), "If Lucy Fell" (1996), and 1997's "Fall" (playing the part of "little girl"). But it was the 1996 dramedy "Manny & Lo" that first displayed the burgeoning talent of the young star.
Scarlett plays Amanda to Aleksa Palladino's Laurel. The two are orphaned sisters who steal a car and attempt to escape being separated and sent to different foster homes. Lo's pregnancy complicates things for the junior Thelma & Louise, and when the two girls decide they don't know nothing about birthing no babies, they kidnap a maternity store clerk (Mary Kay Place) who develops a surprising bond with the girls. For her believable portrayal as the precocious Manny, Johansson earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination and Hollywood started to take notice.
For the next five years, Scarlett alternated forgettable fare such as "Home Alone 3" (1997), "My Brother the Pig" (1999) and "Eight Legged Freaks" (2002) with some highly lauded works. In 1998, she earned more raves as the traumatized equestrian helped by Robert Redford's titular horse whisperer. Three years later, she displayed a developing maturity as Birdy Abundas, the anti-Lolita in the Coen Brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There." That same year, she had the difficult task of playing the transition from angry outsider teen to bored, complacent young adult as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World." And yet again in '01, she stretched as a rebellious, troubled Hungarian teenager in "An American Rhapsody."
Scarlett Johansson: Growing Up Before Our Eyes
With such a wide résumé under her belt already, Johansson was being taken seriously by Hollywood. In 2003, critics again swooned at her turn as the maid-turned-muse to the Dutch painter Vermeer in "Girl With a Pearl Earring," but it was another film that year that finally made Scarlett a star.
In writer/director Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," Scarlett plays Charlotte, the young wife of a superstar photographer on assignment in Tokyo. Feeling alienated, neglected, confused and lonely, Charlotte strikes up an unlikely relationship with Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American movie star staying at the same hotel while he's in Japan to shoot a whiskey ad. Bob is going through a midlife crisis himself, and the pair find that their mutual dissatisfaction and yearning bonds them beyond friendship. That Charlotte and Bob's "relationship" is never consummated only adds to the poignancy of the kindred spirits' collision.
In many scenes where dialogue is barely spoken, both Murray and Johansson display depth and intimacy that's utterly believable and achingly poetic. Scarlett's performance earned her the Los Angeles Film Critics' New Generation Award and the Boston Society of Film Critics' award for Best Actress, among nominations from the MTV Movie Awards, Chicago Film Critics, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Golden Globes and more.
The past few years have again seen Johansson in widely varied films, voicing Mindy the Mermaid in "The Spongebob Squarepants Movie" (2004), stealing SATs in "The Perfect Score" (2004), matching wits with John Travolta in "A Love Song for Bobby Long" (2004), playing a college student who falls in love with her father's very young new boss in "In Good Company" (2004) and even acting in front of tons of blue-screen as clone Jordan Two-Delta in last year's sci-fi dud, "The Island." Of course, the stale taste of "The Island" was removed by Scarlett's turn as the irresistible Nola in Woody Allen's return-to-form 2005 drama, "Match Point" (for which she earned her fourth Golden Globe nomination).
Next up is Allen's "Scoop" (a romantic comedy), Brian De Palma's Hollywood murder-mystery "The Black Dahlia" and Christopher Nolan's turn-of-the-(last)-century magician drama, "The Prestige." As Scarlett continues to earn roles with some of cinema's most celebrated directors, she'll no doubt also engender more jealousy from some of her generation's, shall we say, lesser luminaries?
Career longevity is Hollywood's most difficult trick, and while we don't claim to be able to predict the future, we'd lay odds that audiences and critics are bound to continue to give a damn about this Scarlett.
Sorry. Couldn't resist.
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