Boston Phoenix, January 9-15, 2004
By Gerald Peary
In two years, she's bolted from co-starlet Scarlett in the cultish Ghost World to indie lead superstardom in Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, the object of affection, stretching centuries, of both Bill Murray's Bob and Colin Firth's Jan Vermeer. With both works being spotlighted at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, Scarlett Johansson, all of 19, must have felt a squeeze on her young life. When I ventured into her hotel room one late afternoon, at the end of a long day of reporters there, she looked up at me and moaned. She seemed mighty fatigued, cuddled up sideways, in boots and a mini-skirt, on a love seat. Was she dead bored rattling on about her movies?
I asked instead about attending college. "That's what I was going to do. I never wanted to go into film. No, never. My brother was at BU. I was going to go to SUNY Purchase. But I decided it didn't make sense for me to be in a four-year program. College is either for you or not for you. I would like to take a great writing class, an English class, a US-history class. But I'd want to not just get by, I'd need to be an honors student. I'd also want to take film history and learn editing and post-production and about lighting rigs. Maybe I could go to USC and take a film-history course."
What books does she like?
"Marjorie Morningstar is one of my favorites. I like Franny and Zooey. I really love J.D. Salinger. To Kill a Mockingbird. I like compilations of stories. Ernest Hemingway. I'm reading a book I'm really enjoying that isn't fiction, David Sedaris's Naked."Are there teen movies she enjoys? "Absolutely. The Breakfast Club. The Goonies. Stand by Me. Not all young people watch only movies about cheerleaders and prom queens. Our youth culture is underappreciated. A lot of teenagers really liked Ghost World. It was a shame it was rated R when there's no nudity or violence. The rating system is so sick!
"There's this big spin about American teenagers who pay $10 for popcorn movies or opt for this awful pop music. There's a depression of culture, the Westernization of the whole world. It's very disappointing. But I think people are sick of it. There's going to be a revolution. Kids are going to take a stand. There are also good bands like Coldplay, and directors like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze. [Actress] Keira Knightley is so talented. I have a lot of crazy young actor friends who want to make bizarre movies. We'll see."
I asked Johansson to comment on my epiphany about Charlotte in Lost in Translation and Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring. They're living the same tale, about a teenage girl in physical proximity to a much older man, the male-female tension hot in the air as everything stays chaste.
"I don't think both movies are about not having sex with a middle-aged guy. They are very different stories. Charlotte is re-evaluating her lifestyle and finds something missing. She's fine being in Tokyo. That's not what makes her uncomfortable. Griet has been comfortable living at home, then terrible things happen to her [outside it]. She falls hard for Vermeer, this very mysterious man.
What is her relationship to the real œuvre of Vermeer? "I live in New York, and I'd seen his paintings at the Met. We shot one day in Delft, where the film takes place. I went to the Hague to see his paintings there, to sit before them for a while. People came and said, 'We uncovered these layers of blah-blah-blah. And no matter where you are, the eyes in the painting follow you.' I just wanted to be alone."
And seeing the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring? "I'd been looking at so many prints, I didn't feel the energy. It didn't inspire me. It was very familiar. It was like Warhol prints. I was surprised: it was like seeing the Little Mermaid in Denmark."
And one more difference, Johansson added, between her characters: "Griet can never express her feelings. It's not of her class. Charlotte is very verbal. She can tell Bob tha t 'I'm going to miss you.' "
The wonderful epilogue of Lost in Translation, when Bob and Charlotte meet in the Tokyo streets? "The kiss wasn't scripted." And what about the whisper, when Bob leans and says something in Charlotte's ear that seems to make her giddy. What did Bill Murray say? "The whisper wasn't scripted." At this point Johansson laughed. "You are the first person to ask me, and I'll never tell what he said!"
Gerald Peary can be reached at email@example.com