NS Profile - Scarlett Johansson

The Fifties ideal of sexuality was serious: less flesh, more promise. That's Scarlett's secret, too.

It's a difficult proposition to substantiate, this one, but I'm going to lodge it anyway: people like Scarlett Johansson more than they like other film stars. Sorry, that was coy. It's an easy mistake to make with Johansson, to try to explain her appeal as an asexual, skill-based phenomenon, centring on her laconic delivery and impressive CV. On the face of it, she is the female Macaulay Culkin, finding fame in her pre-teens and graduating not to eating disorders and dodgy soaps, but to the top end of Hollywood film-making. It's rare for someone of 20 to be able to put a stamp of excellence on a film just by being in it, but Johansson does - thanks mainly, I think, to the rare intelligence of her performance in Lost in Translation, but also to Girl With a Pearl Earring and A Love Song for Bobby Long. She has that subtle comic sensibility that makes her Woody Allen's natural next muse, now that Mia Farrow is too old, and also hates him.

Anyway, besides all that, what I meant was, people fancy her more. She occupies that fantasy-fame-shag spot in the kind of universal way that hasn't obtained since there were four film stars to choose from and nobody wanted to do Joan Crawford. I have a friend whose boyfriend kisses the telly when Johansson is on it, and if he has his hands full - at the crucial moment of a hollandaise, say, or mending stuff - he'll blow her a kiss from the kitchen. I wouldn't stand for that kind of behaviour in my household, but then, neither would my friend, not if it happened all the time. Not if it weren't just for Scarlett.

Now, whenever western society converges on a shared lust, there's more to it than just the lust. People who get this attention just by being beautiful, or naked a lot, or dressing in a tiny mosaic of fairy cakes and going to a lot of parties, usually go no farther than their own shores. So, for instance, Abi Titmuss might scoop up many British admirers, but she's unlikely to get as far as France, still less America, because they have their own slutty nurses to fixate over. (I use the phrase "slutty nurse" in a subtle nod to a seminal episode of Friends, and not because I have any moral objection to women who take their clothes off. Well, obviously it's not that subtle any more . . .) Keira Knightley might make a larger dent on the international consciousness, simply because her medium, film, is pan-continental. But she is just a beauty, and there will always be plenty of other beauties to choose from, for people who want to play beauty-top-trumps. Johansson is more unusual than any of her features, or the effect of them combined.

Oftentimes it is remarked that Johansson looks like Marilyn Monroe. I'd say the resemblance was pretty loose. Like that between Kate Beckinsale and Ava Gardner, it is possible to ramp it right up, if you use a silly voice and flap your arms in a sophisticated, pre-war fashion. In fact, Marilyn was more of a poppet than Scarlett - not in personality (I feel certain that, had Marilyn lived a longer life, someone would have come out of the closet on her criminally irritating neuroses), but in the soft, round lines of her facial architecture. Yet the comparison is still instructive: if she doesn't look exactly like Marilyn, Johansson certainly personifies a return to the Marilyn-era feminine ideal. Blonde, sure and hourglassy; high-contrast face; striking silhouette - it's about all that boldness of shape and colour that women whipped out with a wry "ta-da!" in a time when sexiness definitively was not about going out with an illogical bit of your lower back showing.

Scarlett also signals a return to that very delicate equipoise: the state of being both demure and knowing. Film stars used to be like this across the board, but it carries with it such uncomfortable tension - if the demureness doesn't spring from innocence, then what is it withholding? What does intelligence say, when it is silent? It's all too puzzling, too vagina dentata, too much eyebrow and not enough cleavage. In the end we have settled for the different and much simpler balance between the raunchy and the prim, where pop stars will go out wearing a random assemblage of garter and G-string, and then turn round and claim to be virgins.

Mainstream sex symbols now represent a child's version of sex - flashy, noisy, totally without substance. The Forties and Fifties ideal, personified by Marilyn Monroe, was more serious. There was less flesh on show generally, but more promise. Women of that era were not coy teenagers who'd flash their pants at you and then run back to safety. They were adult females in possession of adult sexuality (the trajectory from that era to this one is neatly mirrored by the changing body ideal, from adult to adolescent). What we see, in this feverish Scarlett-worship, is the steady realisation that that version of sex was simply better, not because it's less demeaning to women (although it is), nor because it's less hypocritical (though it's that, too), but because it's truer.

Seven years ago, when she was filming The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford said of Scarlett Johansson that she was "13 going on 30". Again, we come back to a contradiction, albeit a more comprehensible one. Johansson undoubtedly has a maturity that other stars lack. You will rarely, to the point of "never", hear her wittering on about the stresses of fame, or how her last detox was a miracle. She talks about men in an adult way. (She waxed lyrical about the delights of the older gentleman for ages, after co-starring with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. I think that probably also explains her appeal a bit.) When unimaginative people ask her what it's like to be a sex symbol, she bats the question around a bit, as if to say: "Well, if you like having sex, what's not to like?" Whereas the stock response is: "Oh. Oh, no. I'm not like that at all! I just look in the mirror and see little old me!"

More generally, she has a wry, amused and unexcitable manner. My favourite example of this was, again, when she had just finished filming Lost in Translation, and somebody asked her whether she'd encountered a language barrier, shooting in Japan. "Well," she said, very slowly, "there were a number of people over there who knew how to say, 'No'." She doesn't seem like a child, in other words, and yet by any modern standards she is one: she's not yet able to drink legally in her own country.

The general curve, of course, is the exact opposite - film stars get older and older (most of the big hitters such as Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Salma Hayek are in their mid-to-late thirties), while the personality traits expected of them (stay quite quiet; have the opinions of a schoolgirl) get younger and younger. Johansson can't do much about the truth equating youth with beauty, but she does buck the trend that equates beauty with infantilism. This isn't the sine qua non of her appeal, not at all: we would still come back to the arc of the old-world, Fifties hourglass. But I think it might explain why women like her as well, even as their boyfriends are kissing the telly.

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