The Most Important Actor of the Year
You’ll have to forgive me -- insane amounts of snow and a bad flu kept me in this weekend. It does give me the opportunity to highlight an award we don’t give out at the Oscars, though. The Oscars award the best performances of the year, they don’t always award the best actor that year. They award only one role in one film, not the sum of an actor’s work.
This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Lucy.” She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy “Chef” to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror “Under the Skin.”
Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) now -- an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.
Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong -- probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about “Captain America” and expanded her “Iron Man” and “Avengers” role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film -- he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America and Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.
“Lucy” isn’t what I’d call a good film -- it’s very average -- but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but “Lucy” earned twice as much as The Rock’s “Hercules” on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.
“Chef” is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.
“Under the Skin” is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.
It’s a deeply disturbing role -- she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making -- some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore -- she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.
Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although “Under the Skin” is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and “Chef” keeps up her indie viability, “Under the Skin” is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.
Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle.” Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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