Scarlett Johansson's Vanishing Act

LucyUnder the Skin, and Her seem like strange choices for the star. But maybe there's a reason she keeps picking roles in which she makes part of herself disappear.
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Universal Pictures

There is a point in Lucy, the bizarre new sci-fi flick from French filmmaker Luc Besson, when Scarlett Johansson disappears. Literally. She vanishes into thin air. The plot twist has something to do with a drug that has leaked into her system and causes her to unlock more and more of her brain power, but her physical disintegration is really just a logical endpoint of her recent career path. Surely and systematically, Johansson has been disappearing all year.

This might seem counterintuitive, considering that Johansson has appeared in four films in 2014 alone: Under the Skin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, and now Lucy. Add to that Her, which had a limited run in late December but did not see wide release until January, and Johansson has been a nearly continuous presence at both the multiplex and the art house this year.

But in most of these roles, part of her is missing. In Her, it was her body. Johansson gives an entirely vocal performance as Samantha, the Operating System that the film’s protagonist purchases and then falls in love with. In Under the Skin and Lucy, her body is very much present, but her personality has gone missing. For different reasons, both characters are emotionally inert, and the indelible image of each film is Johansson’s blank stare. Like most great actors, she certainly has the skill to convey what is inside her head with just a look, but in these films, her mind and her soul remain intentionally, and frustratingly, hidden.

So what to make of this gradual vanishing act? Is Johansson simply challenging herself with roles that compartmentalize her talents? Possibly. But there is also a strongly feminist streak running through each of these films. Considering her on-the-record statements about Hollywood’s objectification of women, we might be meant to read her recent work as a unique and powerful statement about an industry and society that make its women disappear.

Johansson may not consider herself a feminist (according to an interview in support of The Other Boleyn Girl), but she has been pointing out Hollywood’s misogyny for years. In 2008, she noted publicly that the movie business treats its aging stars differently depending on their gender. When doing press for The Avengers, she made a habit of calling out interviewers who asked her sexist questions. Earlier this year, she informed Glamour of her problems with her press-anointed nickname, ScarJo: “It sounds tacky. It’s lazy and flippant... And there’s something kind of violent about it. There’s something insulting about it.” That casual analysis of Hollywood nicknames didn’t garner much attention, but she had a point. We don’t give such nicknames to our male stars. There is J-Lo, J-Law, and ScarJo, but there is no “C-Tat” (Channing Tatum) or “WILF” (Will Ferrell). By astutely identifying these nicknames as “violent,” Johansson points out their real purpose: to diminish the women they are assigned to.

This is exactly what happens to most of Johansson’s recent characters: they get compartmentalized. In each of the films listed above, she plays a woman who society has assigned a singular goal of serving men. Their journey is to transcend that purpose, and the process is often painful.

In Her, she starts out as Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s servant, but soon she becomes his equal and eventually grows into a powerful, independent entity that leaves him behind. Under the Skin is a more complex case. Her character, an alien (working for a mysterious man) who has come to our planet for the sole purpose of seducing and killing young guys, is ostensibly sexualized. She dresses in clothing—a short skirt and a fur coat—that she thinks will attract a man, but her character is so soulless that there is nothing titillating about her performance. In a key scene late in the film, she takes off her clothes and stands nude before a mirror. Now, you would think the first nude scene by a Hollywood star whose body has been the subject of such intense scrutiny would be big news. But the way the film frames it—with Johansson having removed almost all of her personality from the character—it doesn’t play as even remotely sexual, and the scene, remarkably, barely attracted any hype.

She takes a similar tack in Lucy, which functions simultaneously as a critique of the objectification of Hollywood starlets, as well as a cheap, vulgar embrace of it. As a forced drug mule who essentially gains super powers from the substance she's made to carry, Johansson spends most of the movie in tantalizing outfits: a form-fitting black dress and a see-through white tee shirt. The outfits serve a similar purpose as the short skirt and fur coat in Under the Skin: to lull men into viewing her as a sexual object, right before she kicks their asses.

And yet although Besson dresses her to titillate, he never puts Lucy into a sexual situation. Only once does she even use her looks to gain an advantage over her enemy, and it’s in a very early scene. Her body, which certainly has played a role in shaping her celebrity, is on display throughout the film, but it only exists as a utilitarian instrument of revenge.

By discarding her physical form in Her and her magnetic charisma in Under the Skin and Lucy, Johansson is confronting audiences with the ways that our society refuses to embrace women in their entireties. They're accepted for their bodies or their minds, but rarely both. Best of all, she is raising these issues in films that achieve a mainstream audience (Lucy, bonkers as it is, opened on more than 3,000 screens and beat bigger-budget competition for top of the box office in its first weekend). Maybe these complex ideas will be lost on part of that audience, but it’s worth stopping for a moment and celebrating a movie star with a mission.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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