The Fifties Ideal of Sexuality Was Serious: Less Flesh, More Promise. That's Scarlett's Secret, Too

By Williams, Zoe | New Statesman (1996), May 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Fifties Ideal of Sexuality Was Serious: Less Flesh, More Promise. That's Scarlett's Secret, Too


Williams, Zoe, New Statesman (1996)


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 idea. Blonde, sure and hour-glassy; 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. …

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