Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Black Widow postponed, we’re looking back on the best performances by Scarlett Johansson.
Plenty of actors, from Elizabeth Taylor to Charlize Theron, have earned acclaim by stripping away the superficial appeal of their Hollywood glamour. It’s the flip side of the industry’s endless, odious obsession with female beauty: As the cliché goes, if you want to win Best Actress, make yourself uglier. But how many actors can say they’ve delivered a great performance without a body to inhabit on screen? Denied even an animated avatar, Scarlett Johansson does just that in Her, Spike Jonze’s wistful meditation on loneliness, love, and technology. As Samantha, an A.I. assistant for a computer operating system, Johansson spends the entire film as a disembodied voice, her character conveyed wholly through the inflections of her grainy alto vocal. It’s one of the most fully realized and moving performances of her filmography; far from some acting stunt, it illuminates her talent by demonstrating how it thrives even under the most physically limiting of roles.
Of course, it helps when the film surrounding a performance is one of the best of the 21st century. What sounded a bit silly in theory became devastating in practice, which is sort of a Jonze speciality. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a soon-to-be-divorced, cubicle-dwelling ghostwriter in near-future Los Angeles who develops a strong bond with the Alexa-like assistant of his new operating system. Samantha, as he names her, helps him regain confidence and a more positive outlook, while he helps her discover emotions (her own included) and a firmer grasp on humanity and culture. Eventually, their relationship evolves into a romantic one, beginning with a late-night encounter that’s like a digital variant on phone sex.
Close to a decade later, Her still feels one step ahead of our world, even as advances in technology have continued to accelerate. Nearly every aspect of the film is superlative, from the inventive and oft-subtle production design (imagining a plausible five-minutes-from-now society) to a terrific supporting cast. (To name but one of the many idiosyncratic yet powerfully innovative flourishes that help Her stand out, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema all but eliminated the color blue from the film’s palette, feeling like it was overused in science fiction and too cool for the material.) And yet none of that artistry would matter if the central relationship didn’t work. The romantic pairing succeeds because both actors submit so completely to the notion of extra-organic love, and invest Theodore and Samantha with real depth and soul.
That’s an especially impressive achievement on Johansson’s part. With nothing but her vocal cords, she creates a fully three-dimensional character, all the more human for her literally inhuman origins. When Samantha is learning early on about basic behaviors and social graces, her fumbling moments of discovery are underscored by Johansson’s self-conscious laughter. When the A.I. is pointing out the obvious ways in which her skills go far beyond even what Theodore can understand, her halting patience and even humility make her relatable, to the point that the viewer can just as easily adopt Samantha’s point of view as Theodore’s. Even the ending—in which Samantha upgrades herself past the point of human compatibility and makes a tough choice—is suffused with emotion, as a being beyond our understanding nonetheless understands precisely the pain inflicted by her decision.
It’s clear that Johansson brings something to the role that many, perhaps most actors wouldn’t or even couldn’t. (The story of the lengthy production backs this suspicion up: The entire film had originally been shot with Samantha Morton in the role, only for Jonze to cast Johansson during the editing process, the two working together for four months on new and reworked scenes with Phoenix.) As Samantha, Johansson literally creates something out of nothing, summoning a personality from disembodied ones and zeros, and in the process brings to life a love story from the most implausible of setups. Rarely has an actor done so much with so little.