Monday, November 13, 2006

Scarlett Johansson

A pouty and pretty strawberry blonde New Yorker who commenced her career a child actor with instincts, skills and a streetwise grace that far outpaced her age, Scarlett Johansson first came to attention playing the daughter of Sean Connery and Kate Capshaw terrorized by Blair Underwood in "Just Cause" (1995). Having made her stage debut at age eight in 1993's "Sophistry" at Playwrights Horizons Theatre, the young player also studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Her screen debut in Rob Reiner's disastrous "North" (1994) was less than memorable, but Johansson has maintained an even career, impressing with her fully-realized characterizations in nearly every showing.

She got noticed as one of Eric Schaeffer's wise charges in "If Lucy Fell" and took a co-starring role in the understated independent "Manny & Lo" (both 1996), a perfect vehicle for the actress to prove her talents. Johansson's finely crafted portrayal of Amanda (Manny), a rather sensible 11-year-old who escapes from a foster home and runs away with her 16-year old sister Laurel (Lo) earned her critical praise and led directly to her casting in the high profile but disappointing 1997 release "Home Alone 3" and the highly-anticipated romance "The Horse Whisperer" (1998). In the latter, Johansson landed the coveted role of Grace, a youngster who suffers a physically and emotionally debilitating riding accident. When her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) turns to a horse trainer (Robert Redford) for assistance, romance blooms, and as Johansson turned what could have been little more than a two-dimensional plot device into a full-fledged character, an actress bloomed.

All but disappearing after this film-saving turn, the performer resurfaced three years later in the independent favorite "Ghost World" (2001), starring alongside Thora Birch as the more pragmatic of two best friends who have just graduated from high school and are making plans for the future amidst their own adventures, both real and invented. Snarky but somehow sweet, her Rebecca didn't get the screen time and controversial storyline of compatriot Enid (Birch) but nonetheless impressed in her smaller role. Later that year, she played a young Hungarian girl left behind when her refugee family flees their homeland in a Cold War political climate in "An American Rhapsody" and earned even more indie credentials as a piano-playing teenager who catches the attention of a crafty barber (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Coen brothers' acclaimed period noir "The Man Who Wasn't There". Taking a break from this more heady material, Johansson would next battle giant spiders in the surprisingly fun sci-fi comedy "Eight-Legged Freaks" (2002).

Johansson's true breakout performance would come--like gangbusters--in "Lost in Translation" (2003), writer-director Sophia Coppola's wonderfully romantic film about Charlotte, an emotionally adrift young married tourist in her 20s, left to her own devices in Tokyo while her self-involved photographer husband is on a shoot, who meets and forms a deep, complex relationship with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) an equally disaffected 50-something Hollywood actor. The actress—only 18 during filming—is a revelation in the picture, displaying a rare, multilayered chemistry with Murray despite their age difference. Their rapport, a first tentative, then confident and cozy and then suddenly awkward and sexual, fuels the movie and carries many scenes completely without dialogue. Her subtle yet knockout performance, wildly praised by critics, was poised to rocket Johansson to new career heights. Hot on the heels of that role, Johansson also dazzled audiences in the indie "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), a speculative account of the life of Griet, a 16-year-old girl who appears in Johannes Vermeer's (Colin Firth's) most famous painting. As a result of her two strong 2003 performances, at age 19 Johansson received a pair Golden Globe nominations--one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama (for "Girl With a Pearl Earring") and another for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (for "Lost In Translation").

Johansson's next vehicle, made before her big breakout, was the limp teen caper movie "The Perfect Score" (2004) in which she played the thrill-seeking, daddy-loathing member of a gang of high school students plotting an ambitious scheme to swipe the key to the SAT exam, and she voiced Mindy in the animated "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" (2004). She was better served with a pair of challenging roles released simultaneously at the end of 2004: first, she added depth to her supporting role as the daughter of a middle-aged ad salesman (Dennis Quaid) who becomes involved with her father's new young boss (Topher Grace) in writer-director Paul Weitz's adult comedy "In Good Company"; next, she played the headstrong teen Pursy Will, who returns to her late mother's home to unexpectedly share it with a pair of booze-soaked intellectual boarders (John Travolta and Gabriel Macht) for the Southern-influenced character drama "A Love Song for Bobby Long." In both films Johansson's potent combination of adolescent freshness and wise-beyond-her-years maturity helped breath a compelling realism into her roles.

Johansson next tried the sci-fi action genre with director Michael Bay's misfire "The Island" (2005), playing a woman living in an orderly environment in a post-Apocalyptic world hoping to win relocation to the only remaining pure bio-zone on the planet, only to discover her world is a facade for a more sinister scenario. The actress fared better with a more accomplished auteur when she appeared in Woody Allen's serious-minded film "Match Point" (2005) playing Nola, a sensual but struggling American actress in London who takes up an affair with her ex-beau's brother-in-law (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), and her demanding nature soon forces the man to chose between her and his comfortable, status-granting marriage. The result was one of Allen's best works in years, and the writer-director quickly drafter Johansson to star in his next project "Scoop" (lensed 2005), a romantic comedy that cast her as an American student in London who becomes involved with an aristocrat.

After “Scoop” came and went without much fanfare, Johansson costarred in “The Black Dahlia” (2006), Brian De Palma’s take on James Ellroy’s complicated and richly-textured noir thriller about two hard-edged cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) who descend into obsession, corruption and sexual degeneracy as they investigate the brutal murder of would-be actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), who was found tortured and vivisected in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. Johansson played the girlfriend of Detective Leland Blanchard (Eckhart), a relationship that threatens the two detectives from finding the murderer because of her growing attraction to his partner, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett). She next appeared in “The Prestige” (2006), a supernatural thriller set in 1878 about two stage magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) who clash in a saloon during a fraudulent séance and maintain an ongoing feud that takes both to the top of their careers, but results in terrible consequences.


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