Scarlett Johannson and Julie Kavner
Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woody Allen always knows what to do with his actresses.
If there’s one role Johansson was born to play, it was that of the sexy temptress. The first we see of her Nola Rice in Match Point is in a dimly lit room. She’s covered in dark sensuous hues. She lights a cigarette and speaks in teasing one-liners. Nola appears to hail directly from a ‘40s noir film. What could be sexier than…a game of ping pong? Nothing, that is until Jonathan Rhys Meyers clutches her close to show her how to follow through on the ball, a take on the old cliché of making tennis (or in this case, table tennis) an intimately contact sport. A curious choice, though, considering Meyers’ Chris is actually a tennis instructor.
However, the dichotomy of the seductress and the child’s game serves as an interesting segway into Johansson’s Nola. Around her fiancé and his family, she is the femme fatale icon that is played up in that first scene. She speaks with confidence and wit, and the timbre of her voice alone can make men’s hearts melt. Yet it always appears like it’s a front, a show for the wealthy Hewett family, what her fiancé calls a “come hither” look. It’s no mistake that Nola is an actress in the film.
When she’s away from them, though, the real Nola comes through. This Nola isn’t nearly as level-headed as we thought. She is extremely uneven, alternating between a comfortable confidence (without the self-awareness) and, more often, insecurity. It’s a testament to Johansson’s underrated abilities that she is able to turn these very different traits on and off without ever losing the emotional core that’s always present in her character. She may be the other woman, but her ultimate fate is tragic.
From the very first shot of Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s next film, we know that the role she plays is a complete 180 from her Nola Rice. For good reason too: whereas Match Point is somber and maybe even a bit self-serious at times (though not without moments of black humor), Scoop is nothing but a good time.
Sporting a pair of glasses and a pen and paper, Scarlett Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, an eager journalism student from Rochester. She’s in a London hotel, trying to get an exclusive interview with a filmmaker. Sondra doesn’t attempt to get the interview by sleeping with him: she gets drunk, sleeps with him, and walks away empty-handed, anyway.
While Nola was aware of her feminine charm, Sondra is completely oblivious. It’s not a surprise since her sexual charms are more awkward and cute than purely sultry. There is only one moment in the film where she seems to emanate the same heat as Nola: it’s when she takes off her glasses, pulls away her robe to reveal a sleek one piece, and then proceeds to fake drown in hopes of getting Hugh Jackman’s attention. Allen doesn’t allow us the fantasy of Johansson for more than a few seconds. She refuses to play that part ever again, or perhaps she simply can’t.
Even then, she wins the man over. Their relationship takes off on a fast track as she simultaneously falls in love and investigates the man for murder. Any strides she makes in either of these departments seem to be by pure happenstance, unaware that what she’s doing naturally is working to her advantage. Johansson’s performance is trickier than most will give her credit for: she has to tread the fine line of being the awkward, over-eager student and the woman who woos over the wealthy British aristocrat.
The Woody Allen surrogate has found their way into several of Allen’s films. Usually, this character is played by a man: Kenneth Branagh, John Cusack, Larry David. In Scoop, though with Allen present, Johansson takes on the neurotic, nerdy attributes of her director’s screen persona. The film itself was critically trashed and criminally underrated, but too little attention has been paid to the comic wiles that Johansson pulls in her performance. She plays the Woody Allen surrogate perhaps as well as anyone.
Johansson’s next performance in an Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is both completely different than her first two, but also an amalgam of them. Cristina is a student with academic ambitions, but also enjoys playing the part of sexual desire.
Johansson is over-shadowed by her co-stars in the film, particularly Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall, who give showier performances, but Johansson’s performance is nearly as strong. Her initial scenes seem unintentionally self-conscious, but she quickly settles into her part. Whereas Cruz and Hall’s score their critical praise in their delivery, Johansson’s is a more subtle performance. She doesn’t speak her emotions or thoughts, but conveys meaning through glances and movements.
She is the antithesis of Vicky, her best friend played by Hall, and she goes out of her way to prove it. Unlike the neurotic, self-aware Vicky (who is definitively “American”), Cristina wants to flow with her idealized portrait of the “European”, sexually adventurous and easy-going. Her body language – the tilting of her head, the playful biting of her finger, the twirling of her hair – is all meant to convey a sense of freedom and autonomy that she associates with European living.
Since Match Point, Johansson has been in a bit of a slump, her only notable achievements being her work with Allen. She has not worked with the director since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but their streak of three films together gives high hopes that this is a collaboration that will continue into the future.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1991), Deconstructing Harry (1997)
An oft-forgotten but rich, essential addition to Woody’s Hall of Fame, Kavner has contributed her signature rasp of a voice to six of Allen’s projects, building up an impressive resume of character turns that precede even the earliest rough incarnations of Marge Simpson on The Tracey Ullman Show, and as that character grew in prestige, so too did Kavner’s collaborations with Allen develop in unusual, fascinating directions.
From her first appearance as Gail, co-worker and primary lifeline of Woody Allen’s Mickey, in Hannah and Her Sisters, all the way to her sharp, vivid cameo as Grace in one of Deconstucting Harry’s strangest narrative doodles, Kavner has carved out a niche for herself playing the types of women who usually fade into the wallpaper in Allen’s narratives. Freed of the burden of overt sex appeal, Kavner crafts women of strength and resourcefulness, and often undermines traditional gender binaries by making her creations intellectually and pragmatically superior to Allen’s own fictional doppelgangers.
Gail is a wonderful example of the traditional Kavner mold: as Mickey’s assistant at the comedy show he produces, her opinions combined with her organizational skills keep Mickey on task, in a job, and capable of coping with his day-to-day existence. Once Mickey becomes convinced he has cancer, he turns to Gail not just for comfort, but for rational advice: he clearly views Gail as not just a peer, but the person he trusts and respects most. Radio Days’ “Mother”, like Gail, balances a nurturing side with resilience, tact, and common sense: a duality that will also come to define Marge Simpson over the course of her 20-plus-year run on network television.
Maternity has become, of course, a major trope in Kavner’s body of work with Allen: following her substantial role as Radio Days’ motherly figure, many of her subsequent character turns focus on the familial. As Alma, the protagonist’s venomous ex-fiancee in Shadows and Fog, Kavner sketches a portrait of the nurturing instinct betrayed and gone sour; here her strength comes across as a violent, even emasculating threat instead of bedrock of support. Deconstructing Harry’s Grace seems to be a loving, intelligent wife and mother, but her husband’s existential crisis (literalized by appearing physically out-of-focus) baffles her, indicating Allen’s concern with the limitations of the family unit.
Kavner’s most compelling and rewarding riff on themes of maternity and endurance, however, can be found in Oedipus Wrecks, Allen’s contribution to New York Stories, a 1989 anthology film also featuring work by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Oedipus Wrecks is practically a valentine to Kavner, a short but surprisingly moving rumination on family and romance. As Treva, a psychic whose client Sheldon (Allen) courts her once he starts to realize how similar to his mother she is, the qualities that have always made Kavner such a unique (if unheralded, and certainly asexual) force in Allen’s films posit her as not just sexually viable, but a true romantic heroine.
Kavner, so rarely given the opportunity to show off her charm, is a total peach in the role, exuding charisma and warmth in every frame. The character is the perfect centerpiece in a portfolio of brave collaborations, a true showcase of the actress’ remarkable skill at giving complicated, atypical female characters moments in the spotlight.
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