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Many shades of Scarlett

New York Daily News, December 19, 2004
By Graham Fuller

What is it about Scarlett Johansson and older men?

Not the ones the 20-year-old actress allegedly prefers dating over guys her own age - but the mature stars she captivates on screen.

Johansson herself doesn't know. All she will say about her current older male co-stars is "Dennis [Quaid] was deliciously adorable, and I could easily put him in the place of a father figure. John [Travolta] is like a little kid in a 50-year-old man's body."

Her supreme confidence has been borne out by her ability to hold her own with some serious players:

· In "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), made when she was 13, she played the injured rider whose traumatized mount is healed by Robert Redford's title character.

· In "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), she plays a teenage pianist who offers to perform a sexual act on a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who has sponsored her.

· In "Lost in Translation" (2003), she plays a married Yale graduate in Tokyo who becomes emotionally (but not sexually) intimate with a middle-aged American movie star (Bill Murray).

· In "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), she plays Griet, a chaste Dutch housemaid, who finds an unlikely soulmate in the married artist Vermeer (Colin Firth).

· In "A Love Song for Bobby Long" (opening Dec. 29), she plays feisty Pursy, whose mother leaves her a house in New Orleans occupied by an alcoholic former professor (Travolta), who was once her mom's lover.

· In "In Good Company" (also opening Dec. 29), she plays an NYU student who begins a love affair with the coltish whiz kid (Topher Grace) who's become her father's boss. Dad (Quaid) explodes.

· In "A Good Woman" (unreleased) she plays Meg, Oscar Wilde's naive Lady Windermere, whose more experienced new husband (Mark Umbers) sleeps with an adventuress (Helen Hunt).

It's not just fathers and father figures who confuse and awaken Johansson's characters, however. Mothers, too, play their parts, as one might expect in rites-of-passage stories. In "Bobby Long," Pursy finds her long-last father as she searches for the soul of her mother; in "A Good Woman," Meg's long-lost mother is revealed.

Johansson herself hadn't noticed the connection. "I have never thought about it," she says. "It is weird that there is that bizarre parallel. To me it is different, though, because [my] characters are so different. In both pieces, they discover their mothers, but along the way [in "Bobby Long"], Pursy literally discovers her father.

"Pursy has a lot of aggression about being abandoned," Johansson continues, "whereas Meg idolizes her mother. She has this idea she was this righteous, beautiful woman. I guess it's because she thought her mother died when she was a little girl. I think when you have a parent die when you are young, you imagine them to be perfect. And, of course, Meg finds out her mother has had this very seedy lifestyle.

"Pursy meanwhile, knew her mother and has these memories of her being a heroin addict - and a complete mess."

ARISTOCRATIC APLOMB

It's too early in Johansson's already glittering career to say if the roles she's picked say anything particular about her hidden needs or desires.

But it's not too early to say that Johansson is a major star, one who's aware of her glamour (as a Calvin Klein model) and who handles herself with cool, aristocratic aplomb in public. Despite her husky voice, she is the nearest we have now to Grace Kelly. Last week she was nominated for the Best Actress Golden Globe for her work in "Bobby Long"; this goes with her two Globe nods last year for "Lost in Translation" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

"Star power is really something the audience grants you, which is just lovely," Johansson says. "It is just a wonderful thing to think that the audience has the final say in what they want to see in a film."

Johansson has leapfrogged the "starlet" stage most movie actresses must go through. She has done this by projecting disarming shrewdness or demureness in her films, though in "Bobby Long" she shows her gritty side. Firth noticed that quality in her when they made "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

"Whenever you talk about your colleagues, you're supposed to gush," Firth says. "So it's actually quite difficult when you really like someone. Everyone [on "Girl With a Pearl Earring"] was crazy about Scarlett. She didn't alienate anybody, she's totally genuine, and she doesn't have any saccharine in her personality at all, which, I think, is why people have such direct faith in her.

"Scarlett can come across quite tough and quite worldly. She doesn't come on with anything cute, but says what she means and doesn't suffer fools."

Quaid was impressed with her presence and immediacy on "In Good Company."

"She was 19 when we did it. I remember back when I was 19 and I just didn't have the wherewithal she has," he says. "She has the innate ability to exist on screen. There's never a false moment." Quaid pauses and adds, "She's also a cutup."

In "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Vermeer breaches 17th-century Dutch etiquette by staring at the virginal Griet when her hair tumbles down. In "Bobby Long," the raw Pursy blossoms under Bobby's influence.

Johansson can't escape her beauty and sex appeal on screen, but she doesn't exploit them either - a trap the majority of young actresses fall into (especially when doing magazine photo shoots).

"I would say the character I play in Woody Allen's [upcoming film] is slightly that way," she says. "But she's not an exhibitionist. I don't know if I find that so interesting. Maybe it could be, but it depends on if you can find out why someone is that way.

"To play a character that is overtly sexual and promiscuous without having the explanation behind it just doesn't interest me. If you don't want to watch a movie with a character like that, then you certainly wouldn't want to be one. If there's no psychological depth, what is the point of it?"

Not that Johansson hides her lights under a bushel. Last April, dressed in skimpy lingerie, she pouted and cavorted with the Pussycat Dolls burlesque troupe at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Charlize Theron, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani have also strutted their stuff with the Pussycats. Johansson says Calvin Klein did not object to her appearance.

"Oh, no, not at all. I am not owned by Calvin Klein, and Calvin Klein has been nothing but nice to be me, but I would not take a campaign that forced me to alter my image or the person I am. Altering my image is what I do.

"It is not 1954. The reason why I did it was that it seemed like a lot of fun, and I am a very sexual person. The Pussycat Dolls is such a great way to express your feminine wiles and charms. The girls that do it are so sexy and confident and talented, and they are all amazing dancers and singers.

"There is nothing sexier than a classy burlesque show," she adds. "There is something so much more erotic, I think, about almost baring it all but not baring it all. I think teasing someone with the idea of what it could be like to be with you is much sexier than riding on someone's lap."

One of the downsides of fame is that it promotes gossip that can limit a star's ability to preserve his or her mystery on screen. There was much chatter about Johansson having a supposed tryst with actor Benicio Del Toro on Oscar night last February. Does Johansson regret talking about it to Elle magazine?

"What I don't regret about the comment I made was that it was very obviously sarcastic," she says. "I said, 'Apparently I was having an affair in the elevator,' but it was printed and circulated throughout the press without the word 'apparently.' I felt that the whole point of me making that comment was to kill that rumor.

"It made me realize that you can't be sarcastic. It's bad, because you can't really be yourself in an interview with someone because it is going to be exploited in some way. The whole scenario was silly.

"I just had another interview that said I was hanging out with Prince William, whom I have never met. I am sure he is very nice and very cute, but I've never met him. Whatever. At first, all this really infuriated me and I started getting things retracted, but it almost feeds the problem because then people think you are actually interested in what people have to say about you. I don't even read it now."

She hesitates when she's asked who's she's dating, then comfortably replies: "I have to protect my private life much more than I ever thought I had to. Part of me preserving my mystique and not inviting gossip is not talking about it. That's the stance I take."

Work makes her happiest, she says. "I've been working hard and I think that's what keeps me out of trouble, really. I have been so busy I haven't really had the time to float away. I think idle hands are the devil's playground, and when you don't have something to do, you get all weird and self-conscious. But if you are busy, you keep a healthy attitude.

"With every experience I've had, I've learned about myself as an actor and how far you can push yourself. You are always pushing yourself to the limit and you can always bring it back. If you are completely self-aware, you'd never be able to give everything onscreen, which you should. I don't know if I am getting better. Hopefully I am not getting worse."

Star File: Scarlett Johansson

· Born: Nov. 22, 1984 in New York City

· Parents: Karsten, general contractor; Melanie, film producer, divorced.

· Family: Twin brother Hunter, older sister Vanessa, older brother Adrian, older stepbrother Christian.

· Education: Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York City.

· Stage debut: "Sophistry" (1993, Playwrights Horizons, New York).

· Key films: "North" (1994), "Just Cause" (1995), "If Lucy Fell" (1996), "Manny & Lo" (1996), "Home Alone 3" (1997), "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), "Ghost World" (2000), "The Man Who Wasn’t There" (2001), "An American Rhapsody" (2001), "Eight Legged Freaks" (2002), "Lost in Translation" (2003), "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), "The Perfect Score" (2004), "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie" (2004, voice only)


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