Scarlett Johansson, Indie Ingénue and Expert Lolita

The New York Times, September 6, 2003
By Virginia Heffernan

SCARLETT JOHANSSON, who has made a career of playing under-age muses to older men, has developed a philosophy of how the sexes age differently. "For older women, death happens inside," she declared recently, referring to menopause. She was sitting in the back of a spare cafe in the French Quarter, wearing an orange tank top and short cut-offs. "What comes with that death is a kind of liberation."

Ms. Johansson, 18, had come to town to star opposite John Travolta as a radiant girl who inspires a pair of ruined men in "A Love Song for Bobby Long." The role comes naturally to her; in her graceful decade-long career, Ms. Johansson has acted with Robert Redford in "The Horse Whisperer," Sean Connery in "Just Cause," Billy Bob Thornton in "The Man Who Wasn't There" and Steve Buscemi in "Ghost World." She believes that men over 40 need younger women like her.

"Men have no aid to tell them that they're getting older," she said. "They just see their bodies decaying. A young, fertile, fruitful woman can help you across that bridge."

This season alone, Ms. Johansson becomes two more young, fertile, fruitful women, crossing mortal bridges with middle-aged characters played by Bill Murray and Colin Firth in high-minded and subdued movies: Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," opening Friday, and Peter Webber's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier), which opens Dec. 12. In both films, Ms. Johansson's beauty is almost alarming; her complexion has the flush of a consumptive's.

A look from Ms. Johansson, and certainly a touch, could be enough to impel anyone across any bridge — even that bridge.

As she spoke, Ms. Johansson's eyes were either cast down or fixed steady.

They were also exquisitely made up. Though casually dressed, she had a face for evening; she had given herself the deluxe MGM treatment: ivory foundation, eye pencil, eye shadow, black mascara, impeccable lipstick. The men of New Orleans reeled around like cartoons as she left the cafe and swung down Decatur Street, flashing smiles and seeking beignets at Café du Monde.

And how she talks! With insouciance better suited to, say, Catherine Deneuve than to a bantam New Yorker who graduated from the Professional Children's School just this spring.

Of Hollywood, Ms. Johansson proclaimed, "When vanity's all around you, you can feel filthy." Of social life, she sighed, "Opium's big right now." Of Mr. Firth, she laughed, "Colin was just so amusing."

Of the rest of us, she explained: "Some people are comfortable in a certain element. Some people are dying on the inside. Some people have ulterior motives. And some people are just nice."

This sagacity comes without Parisian inflections, but rather — and uncannily — in standard American English rendered adolescent chiefly by Ms. Johansson's liberal use of "like" and her periodic introduction of hip-hop "izzle" slang.

Still, whatever she said, Ms. Johansson's pitch was low and level. In "Lost in Translation," her deep alto voice, as well as her ruminative languor, distinguish her character, Charlotte, from Kelly (Anna Faris), a squealing actress — think Tara Reid — whom Charlotte and her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), encounter at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo.

Kelly has apparently crossed paths with John before; she brings out his trivial side, while Charlotte, jealous, recoils from what can only be filthy vanity.

But where can she retreat? With sluggish movements, averted eyes and spells of false good cheer, Ms. Johansson precisely evinces Charlotte's sense of abandonment as she finds herself at increasingly loose ends in the enormous hotel. Eventually, her low-frequency abstraction, along with her glow, draw Bob (Bill Murray) to her. A washed-up American actor, Bob is in Tokyo to film a Japanese whiskey commercial; the $2 million fee may just defray the high cost to his dignity. Soon Charlotte, who doesn't know what to do with her life, and Bob, who worries that he has squandered his, unite in their shared melancholy.

In real life, Ms. Johansson cannot sulk for long. Newly friendly with Mr. Murray, Ms. Johansson, who made her stage debut at 8, has persisted in decoding men of a certain age.

Cool even in the Louisiana heat, Ms. Johansson offered an intricate analogy. For a man, she said, growing older is like losing his home: he doesn't need commiseration; he needs shelter. "You just got evicted," she said. "And you're with someone who's going to be evicted. And all you can do is complain about how bad it is to be evicted. And then somebody comes along who is not being evicted, and who says: `Listen, it's not going to be so bad. So you'll be evicted, but you can come stay with me.' "

In this configuration, Ms. Johansson presumably played the one with the house. "You need somebody outside of it," she continued. "Especially when it's somebody who's, obviously, the opposite sex. They can help you. It's not like some woman who is menopausal who is going through it."

Though Ms. Johansson prides herself on understanding her elders, she disdains old age for herself. "I definitely believe in plastic surgery," she said. "I don't want to be an old hag. There's no fun in that."

In "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Johannes Vermeer (Mr. Firth) ensures the eternal youth of Ms. Johansson's Griet, his maid, by painting her portrait. The picture scandalizes the household but restores Vermeer's foundering reputation.

With her eyebrows bleached to white, and her lips perpetually sealed in deference, Ms. Johansson makes a spectacle of disappearing. Moreover, her own luminosity seems to justify her special intimacy with light, as when she semi-cleans the windows of Vermeer's studio so as to illuminate his still-lifes without eclipsing them.

Reflecting on the pretty movie, Ms. Johansson credited the film's director of photography, Eduardo Serra, with achieving a balance of light and shadow that could stand alongside Vermeer's. "Our D.P. was incredible," she said. "He knew immediately how to light me." (Ms. Johansson, who plans to direct someday, attends closely to all details of film production.)

One of Mr. Serra's techniques, however, unnerved her.

"I always had a fill below me," she said. "It's that thing that a lot of older actresses have to get rid of their imperfections." One evening, a camera assistant explained it to her: "You have this little bit of" — she squeezed some flesh around her lips — "that's raised." Ms. Johansson gasped, in earnest, at the memory. She pouted. Even contemplating her shortcomings, Ms. Johansson's self-assurance was breathtaking. And no flaw was apparent.