With her tousled blonde hair, full lips, and porcelain complexion, twenty-year-old Scarlett Johansson has become one of the hottest talents in Hollywood. In the mid-2000s her luminous features graced the cover of every fashion magazine, and in late 2004 she became the face of Calvin Klein, tapped to plug a new perfume for the famous designer. But Johansson is more than just a pretty face. Acting since the age of eight, she has appeared in more than twenty films over the course of twelve years ranging from the independent Manny & Lo (1996) and Ghost World (2000), to the Academy Award-nominated Lost in Translation (2003), to 2005’s summer blockbuster The Island. Regardless of the size of the film or how well the movie does at the box office or with critics, Johansson is regularly singled out for her compelling performances. She is widely regarded as one of the most promising young stars of her generation, and according to Carlo Cavagna of AboutFilm.com, “Johansson is positioned for a huge career, with no foreseeable expiration date.”
Scarlett the big ham
Scarlett Johansson is a native New Yorker, born on November 22, 1984, to Karsten Johansson, a Danish architect, and Melanie Johansson, a homemaker who would one day become her famous daughter’s manager. Scarlett and her twin brother, Hunter (who is younger by three minutes), have an older sister, Vanessa, who is also an actress, and an older brother Adrian. When Scarlett was about seven a friend of her mother’s suggested that the young Johanssons would be perfect for commercials, so Melanie packed up the whole family and took them on the round of casting calls. For Johansson it was a completely overwhelming experience. “It was like being in a beauty pageant,” she told Polly Vernon of the Guardian Unlimited. “The other moms were really scary, and it was awful.”
“Being a movie star is a quality that somebody sort of embodies, and being a celebrity is something that people give to you. I just hope to make good movies.”
But the tough little New Yorker was not discouraged even when casting agents expressed interest in her brother Adrian and not her because Johansson knew that, more than anything else, she wanted to be an actress. “I have always been a big ham,” she went on to tell Vernon. “It’s like I hopped out of the womb and said: I will perform!” In fact, even before auditioning for commercials, Johansson would put on shows for her family and charge them each a dollar to watch. The budding actress’s career was officially launched in 1993 when she appeared in an off-Broadway production of a play called Sophistry, which starred a young Ethan Hawke (c. 1970–), who later became an acclaimed actor in Hollywood.
After Johansson’s brief venture into theater, she began to audition for film roles and never looked back. She explained to Karen Schneider of People, “I started doing movies and that was that.” Johansson’s first role was a small one playing the daughter of actor John Ritter (1948–2003) in the 1994 comedy North. During the next two years, she was given better parts with more dialogue in several mainstream movies, including the thriller Just Cause (1995) and the 1996 Sarah Jessica Parker (1965–) comedy If Lucy Fell.
It was in a small, independent, movie, however, called Manny & Lo (1996) that the youngster received her first taste of critical acclaim. Johansson was praised for her portrayal of streetwise, eleven-year-old Manny, who escapes a foster home with her older, pregnant sister, Lo. The pair ends up kidnapping a quirky woman they meet to help them deliver the baby. For her performance twelve-year-old Johansson earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination. The Independent Spirit Awards are given annually to honor small films that are made outside the large Hollywood system.
Thirteen going on thirty
In 1997 Johansson did appear in one bit of family fare, Home Alone 3, where she played Molly Pruitt, sister of the movie’s child star, Alex Linz. But even at the age of thirteen Johansson exhibited a quiet, intense style of acting, and she already had a raspy, edgy quality to her voice that would eventually become her trademark. Thanks to this maturity Johansson landed a role in The Horse Whisperer (1998), directed by and starring Hollywood legend Robert Redford (1937–). Although the movie focused on the romance between the two adult leads, Johansson played the pivotal role of Grace, a young girl who loses her leg in a riding accident and is severely traumatized. The film was considered to be visually stunning, but in general it was panned as slow-moving and sentimental. Critics, however, applauded its young star, claiming she gave a breakthrough performance. According to Scott Lyle Cohen of Interview, “Johansson’s presence kept the film from the Hollywood glue factory.”
In the press, interviewers observed that off-screen Johansson exhibited a maturity beyond her years. And Redford frequently commented that his young star was “thirteen going on thirty.” This maturity was evident as Johansson sifted through scripts that were coming her way. She wisely chose not to accept roles in slasher movies or fluffy teen films and for awhile Johansson laid low, waiting for just the right part. She told David Ansen of Newsweek, “I thought, ‘I’m in high school, I don’t need to support myself or my family, I’m gonna wait until something better comes along.”‘ For the next two years Johansson focused on high school, becoming an honor student at the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. And she did typical high school things like attending prom, shopping, and eating pizza with her friends.
In 2000 Johansson returned to her independent film roots to costar in the offbeat comedy Ghost World, based on the cult comic-book novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes (1961–). The story follows two best friends whose friendship starts to unravel during the summer following their graduation from high school. Fellow child-star Thora Birch (1982–) took the larger role of Enid, an outspoken, wacky misfit. Johansson played Rebecca, the more subdued and practical of the duo. Critics overwhelmingly praised the film, with Ken Eisner of Variety calling it “by sharp turns poignant, disturbing and hysterically funny.” Johansson in particular was singled out for delivering yet another subtle, masterful performance. For her work, she was honored with a best supporting actress award by the Toronto Film Critics Association.
Anything but lost
Johansson followed Ghost World with small parts in the dramas An American Rhapsody (2001), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), and 2002’s horror-comedy Eight Legged Freaks. She was acting steadily, but nothing could prepare Johansson for 2002, which would turn out to be both a whirlwind of work and a major turning point in her career as she graduated to full-fledged adult roles.
After just one brief lunch meeting, Sofia Coppola (1971–), daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola (1939–), signed eighteen-year-old (and just graduated from high school) Johansson for her upcoming independent movie, Lost in Translation (2003). Set in Tokyo, Japan, the film focuses on Charlotte, a young newlywed who is left alone by her photographer husband. Charlotte seeks the companionship of a washed-up, older actor played by Bill Murray (1950–). The two strangers in a strange land form an immediate bond, and according to David Ansen, “Their brief, wondrous encounter is the soul of this subtle, funny, melancholy film.”
Critics felt that Johansson clearly held her own playing opposite Murray, who was thirty-four years her senior. And, according to Coppola, who spoke with Eve Epstein of Variety, “Scarlett has a talent for conveying depth and thoughtfulness without doing too much, for being still and simple, which is hard to do.” Lost in Translation earned a great deal of critical acclaim for its director and its stars, and was nominated for countless awards. In 2004, Johansson took home a Best Actress award from the Boston Society of Film Critics and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). She was also nominated for a Golden Globe best actress award. The Golden Globes are awarded each year by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for outstanding achievement in film and television.
The girl with the pearls
Ten days after shooting wrapped on Translation, Johansson was whisked off to Luxembourg to begin work on her next film, The Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier (1964–) that gives a fictionalized account of the relationship between seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632–1675) and the girl who appears in his famous Pearl Earring painting. Once again Johansson was paired with a much older, seasoned actor, this time in the form of Colin Firth (1960–), who was cast as Vermeer.
Pearl did not receive the same acclaim as Translation. Although critics acknowledged that the scenery was stunning and the movie visually appealing, it was generally ignored. Leah Rozen of People did point out that Johansson, as Vermeer’s muse and model Griet, “gleams quietly.” And Carlo Cavagna remarked that with Pearl , “Johansson proves she belongs firmly in the top tier of film actors.” For her performance the young star nabbed a best actress nomination from both BAFTA and the Hollywood Foreign Press.
Polly Vernon of the Guardian Unlimited agreed with Cavagna and wrote that 2004 belonged to Johansson in a “high-octane sort of way. . . . She graduated from exquisitely promising starlet-on-the-verge, to fully blown movie establishment.” Thanks to her success in 2004 Johansson was, indeed, firmly established in the Hollywood system and she virtually had her pick of parts. In 2004, alone, she released four movies, including The Perfect Score, A Good Woman, and In Good Company, which costarred up-and-comer Topher Grace (1978–). Johansson also found time to lend her voice to Mindy in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.
The most important film for Johansson in 2004 was A Love Song for Bobby Long, since it garnered the actress her third Golden Globe nomination in two years. Long was another small film that featured a big name, costar John Travolta (1954–), and again Johansson overshadowed her costar. The movie did not fare well at the box office or with critics, but Johansson as Pursy Hominy Will, a young woman who returns to New Orleans to reclaim her childhood home, received her usual round of applause. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly claimed that Johansson instills in Pursy an “unflustered intelligence,” and that the “arresting actress is a welcome to this otherwise unmemorable party.”
Navigating the shores of stardom
Johansson’s manager-mother, Melanie, received a producer credit for Bobby Long, primarily because she helped to get the project off the shelf and into production. This probably will not be her last producer credit, since Johansson now has the clout to push her favorite projects forward. For example, since she received a copy of the book Marjorie Morningstar for her seventeenth birthday, the young actress has been trying to launch a remake of the 1958 movie of the same name. The book was written in 1955 by American author Herman Wouk (1915–); the 1958 movie starred legendary screen actress Natalie Wood (1939–1981).
In the meantime Johansson’s plate is more than full. In 2005, she released two movies: Match Point, a film by celebrated director Woody Allen (1935–), and The Island, a futuristic thriller that centers on two clones on the run from a high-tech cloning facility. When asked why she decided to do her first action movie, Johansson explained to Paul Fischer of Moviehole.com, “It was just a great script. Exciting and fun. I love genre movies when they’re done really well and I think they accomplish what a film is trying to do, which is allow you to escape your life for a couple of hours.”
The busy Johansson also had three movies slated for a 2006 release: The Black Dahlia, directed by famous filmmaker Brian DePalma (1940–), the drama A View from the Bridge, and a second Woody Allen offering. In addition, there were rumors that British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948–) was eyeing the film star to play Maria in a London stage revival of the musical The Sound of Music.
According to Peter Webber, the director of Girl with a Pearl Earring, who spoke with Eve Epstein, “There’s something of the classic movie star in [Johansson], but the hard part will be navigating the treacherous shores of stardom.” So far, the former child actress has managed to keep herself afloat quite well, taking her fame in stride. In late 2004 she was chosen as the face of a new perfume by designer Calvin Klein (1942–) called Eternity Moment. As reported on PR Newswire, Calvin Klein executive Kim Vernon commented that “Scarlett is a talented young force that exudes sophistication and confidence that is not readily seen today, and she balances it all with a relaxed attitude and a sense of humor.”
As sophisticated as she appears, Johansson is still a kid at heart. When she turned twenty in December 2004, part of her celebration included a stop at Disneyland, where she got Mickey Mouse’s autograph. Later that night her mother threw her a party at a top Hollywood nightspot decorated with Eeyore and Little Mermaid balloons. As for her future, Johansson faces it with her usual calm and frank demeanor. And she remains committed to the career she took up when she was in elementary school. “Making movies is all I ever wanted,” Johansson admitted to People. “I don’t plan on retiring until I die.”
For More Information
Ansen, David. “Scarlett Fever: Meet Ms. Johansson, an 18-year-old Who Doesn’t Act Her Age.” Newsweek (September 15, 2003): p. 64.
Cohen, Scott Lyle. “Scarlett Johansson: Making the Competition See Red.” Interview (July 2001): p. 22.
Eisner, Ken. “Review of Ghost World.” Variety (June 25, 2001): p. 22.
Epstein, Eve. “Scarlett Fever.” Variety(December 8, 2003): p. S38–47.
Fuller, Graham. “Scarlett Johansson: We Live in a New Age That Needs New Love Stories, and New Presences to Tell Them. Here Is an Actress Born for these Roles.” Interview (September 2003): pp. 188–94.
Jensen, Jeff. “The New Ingenues.” Entertainment Weekly (November 14, 2003): p. 56.
Lynch, Jason. “Scarlett Fever.” People (January 24, 2005): p. 95.
Rozen, Leah. “Review of Girl with a Pearl Earring.” People (January 26, 2004): p. 27.
“Scarlett Johansson Signed as Face for Calvin Klein Fragrance.” P R Newswire (February 17, 2004).
Schneider, Karen S. “Real Attitude: A Movie Vet at 18, Lost in Translation’s Scarlett Johansson Can Still Use a Hug.” People (October 6, 2003): p. 113.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “Review of A Love Song for Bobby Long.” Entertainment Weekly (January 28, 2005): p. 64.