Essays · Movies

Performer of the Year (2014): Scarlett Johansson

Every year, Film School Rejects names a Performer of the Year. For 2014, that honor goes to Scarlett Johansson. Here’s why.
Under The Skin
By  · Published on December 16th, 2014

Lost In Translation wasn’t Scarlett Johansson’s screen debut – she had brushed up against leading lady status with a few films beforehand – but it was the first time people took real notice of her ability to hold their attention through her performance. (The underwear scene helped too, but let’s stay on point here people.) The next decade saw her star in twenty one films of varying quality – from the highs of Her to the subterranean lows of The Spirit – across all manner of genres from comedy to drama to action to kids movies.

2014 saw her continue that trend by appearing in four films – four fairly disparate films – that not only earned a collective $1.25 billion worldwide but that also saw her flex a wide variety of muscles, both acting and otherwise. The roles vary in what they demand of her and what she delivers, and they show a performer at the top of her creative, risk-taking game in a way that very few others (male or female) matched this year. (Sorry, but while we love Chris Pratt in The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy they’re both basically just Andy Dwyer with different name badges.)

There were better performances in 2014, but none of those other actors found anything close to the critical and commercial success Johansson achieved while moving so effortlessly from blockbuster to art film to supporting role and back again.

Johansson’s year began with the sweetly affecting sound of her vocal-only performance in Her still elevating our hearts and heartbeats, but come April she delivered a one-two punch that could hardly have been any more different.

First up was Captain America: The Winter Soldier where she took third billing as the closest thing Marvel has to a female superhero onscreen and helped carry the film to massive success. There’s no doubt that a big part of her character is intended to be boiled down to a shapely woman kicking ass in tight clothing, but Johansson has grown Black Widow into something and someone far more than that across her three Marvel appearances. The character is capable, smart and mysterious, and Johansson combines these elements with the perfect blend of hard edge and soft vulnerability. She displays real fragility one moment and deadly confidence the next, and her chemistry and banter with Chris Evans’ Captain America rivals any other pairing in the Marvel universe.

Opening the same day as Marvel’s behemoth – the second-highest grossing film of Johansson’s career – was one of her lowest, but what Under the Skin lacks in box-office haul it more than makes for in critical clout. Writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s frightening, sexy and exhilarating art-house riff on Species features Johansson seemingly tasked with wooing human men to their pitch-black doom. There are no flying scissor kicks to be found here, but the film remains her most physically-demanding performance. She’s frequently exposed, but more than that she’s tasked with conveying all manner of emotion and intent with very little dialogue. What could have easily been construed as a coldly analytical exploration of a stranger in a strange land instead becomes a tragic journey towards discovering what it means to be human. The film is beautifully shot and scored and Glazer succeeds without spoon-feeding viewers, but it’s Johansson who keeps our eyes glued to the screen alternately terrified of her and for her.

She also had a small role in Jon Favreau’s Chef.

Johansson’s fourth and final film of 2014 is probably the most surprising in what she and the film accomplished. Luc Besson is a familiar name to movie fans, but in addition to being in something of a directorial rut since 1994’s The Professional – he’s directed nine films since then, and you probably only know/like The Fifth Element – he’s also never had a film earn over $100 million domestically (and has only had two do so worldwide). That all changed with his latest though as Lucy became Besson’s highest grossing film, both domestically and internationally, by a wide margin – it’s earned nearly half a billion dollars worldwide.

It’s the 15th highest grossing film of the year globally, but it’s worth noting that the fourteen movies above it consist of sequels, animated films, Marvel movies and other “obvious” blockbusters. Only one of them also rests on the shoulders of a female lead, and none of them share Lucy’s R-rating. Johansson joined a fairly short list of women who can open an action film – Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, and…? – and she proved she didn’t need the Marvel brand to do it.

She’s the film’s lead – its only lead really – and she delivers from beginning to end. From an innocent victim whose body is hijacked for nefarious purposes to an all-powerful uber being capable of just about anything, she gives an energetic, knowing and constantly charismatic performance.

It’s unclear at this point if Johansson will receive an Oscar attention for her turn in Under the Skin as while it’s greatly deserved it’s also pretty unlikely given the film’s size and dark, genre nature. With or without award noise though her eclectic career continues over the next fourteen months with the guaranteed box-office giant Avengers: Age of Ultron, the live action/animated hybrid re-telling of The Jungle Book and a role in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! in early 2016. Let’s hope this trend continues as she eschews generic rom-coms like the ones that already plagued too much of her career, and instead expends her talents on big action and big risk in equal measure. I can’t be the only one ready for a sequel to The Island can I?

Related Topics: ,

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.