While Scarlett Johansson has played several characters who ascend to a greater level of consciousness, her professional ascension to major movie-star status was once far from assured. She may currently play one of the only female superheroes in the biggest superhero franchise going while dabbling in comedy, drama, and sci-fi on the side, but her best early roles in Ghost World and Lost In Translation were not seen all that widely (at least not by the standards of, say, Sandra Bullock movies). Moreover, between the fall 2003 release of Translation and the holiday 2005 release of Woody Allen’s Match Point, Johansson toiled in a variety of movies that haven’t gained bad reputations, in the sense that they’ve barely gained reputations at all. She clocked in as love interests for The Island and In Good Company; she dabbled in period pieces with A Good Woman and Girl With A Pearl Earring; and she shared some pre-Avengers screen time with Chris Evans in the forgotten teen comedy The Perfect Score (and would reunite with him in 2007’s The Nanny Diaries). Even performers with resumés as diverse as Johansson’s and quality levels as consistent as her recent work aren’t guaranteed name recognition, and a decade ago she was often still playing the ingénue.
Match Point cast her as an adult woman; nominal adulthood is difficult to avoid in Woody Allen’s films, where even characters in their early 20s are getting married and having children. That said, her character, Nola, is still essentially a love interest. For all of Allen’s facility with memorable female characters in movies like Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Mighty Aphrodite, and Blue Jasmine, he’s not above casting a woman as primarily a temptress for his leading man. In Match Point, Allen at least mitigates some of that ick factor by not serving in that role himself. Even Allen at his youngest and sexiest (which is to say, funniest and least balding) could not have played Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the English social climber who begins an affair with Nola, his friend’s fiancée. Nola is both the story’s catalyst and its victim, as—like Anjelica Huston in Crimes And Misdemeanors—she becomes such a menace to a cowardly man’s stable life that he murders her.
Match Point isn’t exactly a noir, but Johansson’s role has noirish overtones. While she’s capable of resembling a ’40s or ’50s femme fatale, her other explorations of those bygone decades have come from inside quotation marks, in a couple of supporting performances for the Coen brothers. Allen, for his part, has employed movie-star archetypes in the past, but often for comic effect. His more serious leading ladies tend to be, like his male leads, anxious and neurotic. Nola isn’t different in that respect; she shows anxiety early in the film about her stalled acting career, and reveals more as the film goes on. But Johansson manages to underplay both the nagging self-doubt Allen assigns so many of his characters and the sexuality that goes a bit further than some of his traditional New York neurotics.
Johansson has room to underplay because Allen gets in a little closer with his camera than in some of his other films. He tends to favor holding master shots with some comfortable distance, and Match Point has plenty of those, but Johansson’s scenes with Rhys Meyers have more back-and-forth cutting than his usual, which gives Johansson additional close-ups. They have a scene together about half an hour into the movie that’s full of the dialogue that characterizes Allen’s distinctive, sometimes awkward writing, especially when he’s not utilizing laugh lines: blatant exposition (“she wants to marry you”) and self-explanation (“I’m just a starving actress from Boulder, Colorado”), somewhat stilted language (“you’re going to do very well for yourself, unless you blow it”), and weirdly on-the-nose come-ons (“No one’s ever asked for their money back,” Nola says to answer a question about her effect on men), all over the course of a few minutes. But Johansson, both hesitation and flirtation passing across her face in close-up, makes the conversation sound (and look) almost natural. Nola isn’t as good a part as Rebecca in Ghost World or Charlotte in Lost In Translation, but given her status as a temptress and murder victim, it might actually be a harder part to nail.
Yet it’s not as if working with Allen instantly boosted Johansson into another movie-star realm. Really, that kind of star-remaking magic is not something Allen has had access to in a long time. Many performers, especially women, have continued to win Academy Awards under his writing and direction, but while he truly affected the careers of Mia Farrow or Dianne Wiest, he hardly put the likes of later collaborators like Cate Blanchett or Penélope Cruz on the map. Even a younger star like Emma Stone will likely have her Woody Allen movies serve as more of a prestige footnote to her career than a linchpin. (Given the allegations of abuse from his daughter that continue to follow him, it’s remarkable that Allen remains in the position to even dole out footnotes. For the purposes of this column, I won’t be discussing this matter further than this acknowledgment of both the allegations and the frequency with which similar allegations from women are often ignored or dismissed—regardless of what happened in this particular case.)
Working with Allen on Match Point, then reteaming with him for two more films, conferred a certain level of prestige upon Johansson, who proceeded to work with Christopher Nolan and Brian De Palma, alongside far fewer stabs at mainstream acceptance like The Nanny Diaries. But if anything, Johansson helped to jumpstart Allen’s flagging career more than vice versa. He went from some of the worst reviews in his filmography for a series of limp comedies (diminishing returns following the more consistently amusing Small Time Crooks) to two of his periodic best-since-whenever movies.
Their first collaboration in particular was subjected to ever-escalating hype. First it was tagged as Allen’s most engaging film since the ’90s, which seemed true enough (and perhaps not so difficult); then, later, his best since Crimes And Misdemeanors, a distinction that seemed to conflate Match Point’s resemblance to the earlier film with Misdemeanors’ vastly higher quality (while discounting several terrific Allen movies from the decade that followed Misdemeanors in the process). By the time Owen Gleiberman got to it in his Entertainment Weekly review, he was calling Match Point Allen’s best since Manhattan—in 25 years, in other words. A four-decade career apparently inspires not caution about comparisons to a large volume of past work, but rather heedless enthusiasm, however temporary.
Maybe Johansson was helping to bewitch these critics and audiences. In 2008, when Vicky Cristina Barcelona was released domestically (following a not especially encouraging reception at Cannes), it was again touted as Allen’s best in years—sometimes even positioned as a real-deal corrective to Match Point, which had been out in the world long enough to become overpraised. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an odd choice for that distinction; it would be more accurate to call it the best version of a type of movie Allen began periodically making around that time.
While plenty of Allen’s movies qualify as comedy-dramas, much of his ’00s filmography has a clear divide between broad comedies like Hollywood Ending or Small Time Crooks and dark dramas like Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream. Melinda And Melinda is even explicitly about the process through which the same basic story can be told as tragedy or farce. Later in the decade, though, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), and Irrational Man (2015) approach darker material with neither comedic sharpness nor a strong sense of drama. Crossing light drama with dark comedy results in a mush of general Woody-ness that creates the aura but not necessarily the experience of a fun or insightful time at the movies. I recall seeing Vicky Cristina Barcelona in Manhattan on opening night and hearing appreciative laughter from an audience that seemed to find it funny even though it has relatively few jokes. (Save Penélope Cruz’s delightful turn, the movie is scarcely much funnier than Match Point; it just has prettier scenery and less murder).
Allen’s little morality dramedies often play like extensions of Match Point’s meditation on luck, concluding with some degree of shoulder-shrugging (even the more comedically inclined Whatever Works, from the same period, shares this eh-what-can-you-do philosophy). In his weaker films, this leaves some strong performers playing parts of schemata rather than fully felt characters. Johansson’s Cristina, for example, is arguably even more of a construct than her Nola three years learlier. Though she’s one of the movie’s two leads, she exists primarily to provide a counterpoint against Vicky (Rebecca Hall), her best friend and fellow construct. Vicky seeks commitment and stability, while Cristina flaunts her willingness to try anything. Over the course of the movie, she dabbles in filmmaking, poetry, and photography, among other artistic pursuits. In a proper Allen comedy, this might be a running gag; in Vicky Cristina, it’s a wan little philosophical thread.
Johansson and Hall both imbue their characters with some life, but they’re constrained by the movie’s oddly clinical, over-narrated romantic ping-ponging. During a summer in Barcelona, both women embark on different relationships with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), including Cristina’s polyamorous situation with Juan Antonio and his on-and-off love Maria Elena (Cruz). Johansson’s role in all this feels like a product of her own willingness to experiment, which is to say the ick factor avoided by Match Point re-emerges as Allen arranges her in a series of sexual trysts that he clearly regards with an outsider’s fascination-slash-fantasizing.
The movie does offer some degree of emotional payoff at the very end, with a shot of Vicky, her fiancé, and Cristina traveling through an airport, leaving Spain. With contemplation visible on Johansson’s face, the narrator matter-of-factly notes that following this summer overseas, “Cristina continued searching, certain only of what she didn’t want.” Johansson and Hall are two major reasons that this sentiment doesn’t sound pithy or chilly. The ending has such a strong sense of open-ended yet lived-in melancholy that it becomes easier to understand why Vicky Cristina has such a strong reputation, at least in the realm of late-period Allen.
Johansson’s best character and performance in an Allen film, though, comes in their least-loved collaboration: Scoop, a goofy comedy that served as one of Allen’s temporary farewells from on-screen appearances (he would turn up again in a segment of To Rome With Love in 2012, and off screen as the narrator of the new Café Society). Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, a journalism student visiting London who happens, through fantastical circumstances, on a potentially lid-ripping story: Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a dashing aristocrat, may be a serial killer. Those fantastical circumstances occur during a magic show run by Sid Waterman (Allen), who Sondra ensnares in her investigation.
Allen, then, serves as an oddball father figure to Johansson; he even poses as her father when Sondra insinuates herself into Lyman’s life. Doubtless Allen would have preferred, as he semi-joked at the time, to be young enough to play Johansson’s love interest, rather than a zany dad type (or, really, granddad type). But Allen and Johansson have strong onscreen chemistry together—not romantic, mind, but comic. Allen is his usual one-liner machine, and his quips bounce off of Johansson’s enthusiasm and eventual impatience; together, they have a way of constantly repositioning each other, remaining in opposition over everything from investigative methods to assumptions about Lyman’s guilt or innocence. Their quips, good and bad, feel like part of an amusing, perpetual needling machine.
By 2006, the Allen one-liner had grown musty enough to require a particularly skillful delivery to work. Allen, after a few years off, proves himself capable of stammering those out like a pro, aided by the movie’s acknowledgment that they’re the compulsive shtick of an old man. Johansson, meanwhile, has fewer direct laugh lines. When she does bite into her wisecracks, she lands them beautifully (“If we put our heads together, you’ll hear a hollow noise”) but much of what’s funny about her performance is her physicality. Bespectacled, sometimes grinning, and perpetually gesticulating, her performance suggests a screwball heroine who may have been relocated into a different sort of movie and isn’t sure which kind. This sense of dislocation takes advantage of Allen’s odd post-2005 mélange of greatest hits, European tourism, and murder stories; without her, Scoop’s comic lightness might not register as strongly.
The idea that slapping a pair of glasses on Scarlett Johansson and giving her some lines referring to a working knowledge of orthodontics could turn her into a neurotic goofball sounds absurd. But it works, both because of her performance and how Allen showcases it. In contrast to the Match Point close-ups, Scoop often frames Johansson further away, in two-shots with her co-stars. Next to the tall Jackman, she looks slightly gawky, while next to Allen she appears more statuesque. Allen’s preference for long-ish takes means that his dialogue scenes with Johansson often play out in just a couple of shots; the back-and-forth rhythm this allows them to develop winds up more important than their actual lines. Of the three Allen/Johansson movies, it’s the one least inclined to stick its leading lady at a dinner table for flirty banter.
Like the Allen/Diane Keaton reunion Manhattan Murder Mystery, Scoop is a slim movie with relatively weak murder-mystery plotting, but like the earlier film it’s also a lot of fun; it’s one of Allen’s only post-2000 movies with the lightness of spirit to give itself over to a star turn (the next-closest is the decidedly un-light Blue Jasmine). While Sondra Pransky hasn’t become a signature part for Johansson to rival Black Widow or her work in Lost In Translation or Under The Skin, it still qualifies as a star moment—maybe more so, considering the enjoyable thinness of the material.
All three of Johansson’s characters in Allen films waver with neurotic uncertainty, whether it’s about romantic entanglements or job-related anxiety (all three characters, in fact, have a bit of both). Neurotic uncertainty is pretty much Allen’s stock-in-trade, so it’s not as if his most prominent late-period muse opened up new avenues of human experience to explore. Even Allen’s most original work of the past 15 or 16 years tends to echo something from his earlier work, be it an old short story, bits of old characters, or in some cases actual repeated jokes. There’s poignancy, then, to the way this famously death-fearing filmmaker aligned himself with Johansson in her 20s—and that includes any discomfort about Allen’s clear adoration of her. Life, even movie life, continues along without his participation, which may account for why so many of the movies Allen doesn’t start in for himself feel more constructed, less comically loose (if they manage to be comic at all). This former stand-up comedian must exercise more control to make himself heard from behind the camera. Though some of them still contain strong performances (his latest, Café Society, has plenty), many of his later films put strong performers through the Woody Allen motions.
One final reason Scoop resonates the most as a collaboration between the two is the way it makes that transition part of its text. The movie ends with Allen’s character dying in a comical offscreen mishap, to be remembered fondly by Johansson’s Sondra as she presumably goes on to an acclaimed journalism career. Allen’s Sid is last seen on a boat traversing the River Styx, doing card-trick shtick for other passengers. There’s a dash of ego in ending the movie on this image, rather than one of Sondra, but intentionally or not, it’s self-deprecating, unable to obscure the fact that Allen is far closer to the end of his career in Scoop than Johansson is to the end of hers. Woody Allen couldn’t change the course of Scarlett Johansson’s career, not fully, yet she didn’t just cross a single, generic Woody Allen movie off of her checklist. She found meaning in Allen’s professed meaninglessness.
Next time: An undisputed master breaks down a beloved legend.