Scarlett Johansson takes a class trip in ‘The Nanny Diaries’

[24 August 2007]

By Joe Neumaier

New York Daily News (MCT)

WANTED: Movie ingenue with great sense of humor, earthy sensuality and Hollywood heat, filled with youthful vigor yet old-fashioned movie virtues, for a comedy of manners set in New York’s upper East Side child-rearing and society-lunching world. Send resume care of “The Nanny Diaries.” Scarlett Johansson look-alike a plus.

No, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini didn’t place ads like that to find a star for their adaptation of Emma Laughlin and Nicola Kraus’ 2002 best seller, the title of which quickly became shorthand for contempt for the lifestyle of the rich and child-ed.

But Johansson, 22, fit “The Nanny Diaries,” opening Friday, like a spoonful of sugar. As Annie, a college graduate pondering her next move, Johansson mixes bemusement and bewilderment at the opulence, and cluelessness, around her. When Annie literally bumps into 5-year-old Grayer (Nicholas Art) in Central Park, she’s instantly recruited by his mother—whom she refers to as Mrs. X (Laura Linney)—to move into her and Mr. X’s (Paul Giamatti) Park Ave. home as their live-in nanny.

Annie convinces herself that observing this family (such as it is) will eventually help with her interest in anthropology, and be a contrast to the middle-class New Jersey life she was raised in by her mother (Donna Murphy). What she doesn’t count on is the bond she forges with the alienated kid, and the changes she brings about.

“I felt like I knew this girl,” says Johansson by phone from Oviedo, Spain, where she’s shooting Woody Allen’s latest film. “She could have been a friend of mine, or a friend of a friend, somebody who could have been in my circle at some point in my life.”

The life her “Nanny” character sees, however, is one Johansson would certainly be a stranger in. “I grew up in the West Village—no nanny—and a lot of my friends’ parents were artists and came from sort of bohemian backgrounds. I actually didn’t know many people with nannies.

“Only when I went to high school (the Professional Children’s School) did I meet those kinds of families and kids ... and it was very different from anything I’d experienced below 14th St.”

“Scarlett clearly had the observations of an outsider who had been there,” says Berman, “and that’s what Annie is in the movie. And she nails it.”

With Linney, Berman says it was the opposite: the Oscar-nominated actress (“You Can Count on Me,” “Kinsey”) gave insights into how the people in that world operate, as a graduate of private schools on the upper East Side and Connecticut—though her parents were a nurse and a celebrated playwright.

“She understood a specific kind of upper East Side woman,” says Berman. “She was raised there and went to those schools, though because of who her parents were and what they did, she, also, had an outsider status. So she got it all so perfectly.”

In addition to speaking with former nannies, the filmmakers, who are from New York (Pulcini was born and raised mostly in Queens; Berman is from Brooklyn), eavesdropped on the world they were putting on film.

“We tried to spend a fair amount of time where the `ladies who lunch’ go, observing them, listening in on them,” says Pulcini. “There’s actually a lot of real-life Mrs. X’s in bit parts; they liked being represented. There are some jokes in the movie only New Yorkers will get.”

“New York itself is kind of a character in the film,” says Giamatti. “They’re celebrating it in the same way that books like `Eloise’ do. It’s meant to be very fairy tale-ish—and Laura and I were meant to be like the wicked stepparents.”

Johansson says she wanted to make sure her character (called “Nanny” or “Nan” in the book) would connect with movie audiences no matter what reference point they were working from.

“For Annie, New York is just a hop across the Hudson River; it’s not like she’s from a small farming community in the Midwest, wide-eyed at these stunning material things,” says Johansson. “She reads fashion magazines, and is aware of this world. I didn’t want it to seem like she’s coming from complete innocence, didn’t want her to seem dewy-eyed. She’s sort of amused by all this extravagance, and sort of loves living, briefly, in this lap of luxury.

“But there’s another aspect, which is the women Annie meets who are also caretakers,” she adds, “who are really touching characters and who show a different side to this life. And in showing all these sides, the movie is a real love letter to New York. I hope that comes across.

“People outside the city can get a sense of this part of it. Like with many Woody Allen films, even if you’re not familiar with the city, or have never visited it, you see a certain lifestyle in `Nanny Diaries’ from a very personal perspective.”

As Berman points out, that lifestyle also has its fashions.

“There’s a line that Scarlett’s character says: `I’m the Chanel bag of nannies’—because she’s the most desirable kind, to some people. But `mannies’ are in now. That’s the current trend, to say, `Oh, now I have a manny.’”

Then there’s the most serious question: Since Mr. X has a history of cheating, what married woman would hire someone as sexy as Scarlett Johansson as a nanny?

The actress just laughs and deflects the question good-naturedly: “I have no retort for that!” But Pulcini does: “That’s where you have to allow a fantasy element.”

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