Guided by Voices: Why Scarlett Johansson's Great Performance in 'Her' Isn't as Unique as it Sounds

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The moment the Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system in Spike Jonze’s “Her” chirps out her first breathy, anxious, and excited “hello,” it’s pretty much all over for Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely Theodore. Johansson’s Samantha sounds like, well, a person, not a Siri or a robot or some kind of cold and automated thing, a real being, the kind that can pick her own name and read books and even make a flesh and blood man fall in love with her. While Jonze’s film sets about chronicling the ups and downs of Samantha and Theodore’s burgeoning relationship (nothing, of course, is more of a downer than never being able to hold the object of your affection), the genuine love between the two never seems to be at issue – even when the audience is forced to remember that this is a bond between man and machine that can never be truly consummated. It’s easy to forget this is a film about a man who loves his operating system, and much of that is due to Johansson’s emotional, loving, light, and unforgettable performance, all done via her voice.

Johansson’s work in the film has already racked up some awards recognition – she won Best Actress at the Rome Film Festival and has a slew of critics associations nominations under her belt  - but it was also recently ruled ineligible for the Golden Globes, putting a bit of a pin in its potential for awards season glory. (The performance does, however, remain eligible for the Academy Awards, and while she did not garner a nomination, she was also eligible for recognition from the SAG Awards.)

Johansson’s performance in “Her” is certainly a special one, but it’s not the first time a talented thespian has been tasked with giving a full-bodied performance without, well, an actual body to do it from. Johansson’s whip-smart (artificially so, though that does not diminish her abilities) Samantha joins a legacy of technologically advanced beings that, even without the addition of flesh and blood, still feel fully drawn and surprisingly sentient.

Perhaps the most well known example of what a literally disembodied voice can do when it’s set up as its own important character, Douglas Rain’s work as HAL 9000 in both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “2010” seem like a natural predecessor of Johansson’s turn as Samantha. Like Johansson, Rain was primarily known as a stage actor (with a strong concentration in Shakespearean dramas), which gives his work as the nefarious spaceship computer that extra shine. Like Samantha, the narrative and aims of “2001” (and, to a lesser extent, “2010”) hinge on Rain’s work, and his dulcet tones, his calm demeanor, and his total control of nearly every situation he’s involved in lend Rain’s performance as HAL some serious (and well deserved) gravitas. Also, he’s just plain scary. Rain was not nominated for his work in either the 1968 Stanley Kubrick classic or Peter Hyams’ 1984 follow-up. By all means, he should have been.

More recently, Kevin Spacey lent his talents to another space-bound robot, as GERTY in Duncan Jones’ “Moon.” The 2009 sci-fi stunner is undeniably influenced by “2001” and, as such, Spacey’s work as GERTY smacks of HAL. As star Sam Rockwell’s only “friend” on the single mining mission, Spacey employs the same flat tones of Rain’s performance to deliver news, information, and even something resembling affection for his lone spaceman. A tiny computer screen shares GERTY’s apparent emotions by way of emoticon (an inspired choice by Jones), with little wavy lined smiles conveying conflicting feelings, happy faces accompanying decidedly unhappy scenarios, and a truly terrifying frown face saying more than any emoticon ever should. Spacey was, like Rain, not singled out for awards recognition, despite turning the role of a glorified FLOWBY into something haunting and lovely and strange. “Okay, Sam.”

The sort of work that Johansson, Rain, and Spacey all completed in their respective films – pure voiceover – is one most often utilized by way of narration, even if the job of narrator is often ceded to characters we actually meet within their various productions. The closest that narration can come to Johansson, Rain, and Spacey’s roles is by way of the never-seen narrator, such is the case with Alec Baldwin in “The Royal Tenenbaums” or Will Lyman in “Little Children.”

While neither actor pops up in a corporal manner in either film, both productions are helped along immensely from their voice-only contributions. Baldwin’s work as a storyteller is punchy, rich, and deeply informative. Knowing it’s Baldwin actually helps his work in the film – there’s instant recognition there, an unshakeable Baldwin bravado that drives it, and never seeing Baldwin in-body only makes his work somehow more fun and frisky.

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On the flip side, Lyman’s work in Todd Field’s 2006 adaptation of the Tom Perotta book of the same name was initially uncredited – we didn’t even know it was him passively observing the infidelities of Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson in the suburban drama. Authoritative, strong, and series, Lyman’s work only highlights some of the hormonal insanity present in the film, so it should be no surprise that the experienced voiceover artist has done work for the informational “Nova” series and those peppy Dos Equis commercials.

Elsewhere in the world of narration is the far more traditional narrator-as-seen-character standard. Stars like William Holden, Ed Norton, and Johnny Depp actually appear in the pair of films they also narrate – Holden is our navigator through the psychic fallout of stardom in “Sunset Blvd.,” while Depp leads the cast in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and Norton is the star of “Fight Club” – but their narration still has an otherworldly and transcendent quality. It doesn’t matter that we see them; they are able to exist by way of both a traditional performance and voice-only work.  They could all easily pull a Lyman or a Baldwin and contribute only their words, and still their performances would be some of their finest.

Johansson’s work in “Her” might be getting sold as unique, especially given the glut of awards recognition that’s starting to be hoisted upon her (when the news that someone won’t be getting a certain nomination is big buzz, that performance is certainly on to something), but it’s not nearly as unprecedented as it first sounds (pun intended). Instead, the actress is joining a legacy of highly important (and often overlooked) voice-heavy roles that do with just one element what many can’t do with the full body toolbox, flesh and blood and arms and legs be damned.