It’s not easy, in the noisy burble of modern cinema, for actors to capture our attention — let alone the attention of award voters — when they’re keeping silent on screen. When it does happen, it’s usually because the setting explicitly allows them that silence or even makes it part of the role’s charm. (Jean Dujardin in “The Artist,” for example.)
But what about the reverse? Someone who does plenty of talking but is never seen at all? The obvious example is voice-acting in animated features, increasingly common given the expansion of that genre. Yet this season the same can also be said of someone in a full-blooded live-action movie: Scarlett Johansson, who as a HAL-like A.I. creation in love with Joaquin Phoenix in the upcoming Spike Jonze romantic fantasy “Her,” does a whole lot of chatting and conveys a whole lot of modalities — funny, confident, sexy, scared — without ever showing her face.
The Johansson performance works on a particular level. Because her voice is so distinct, and because it’s usually coming out of such a familiar face, she actually has to spend the first part the movie making us forget who it belongs to. It’s a tall order, but Johansson achieves it with ease.
When the actress is first heard in the film, telling Phoenix’s sweet loner that she has just read a book of baby names in a fraction of a second and chosen “Samantha,” most of us will find ourselves thinking, 'This is Scarlett Johansson, and she has come to be a beautiful disruption in Phoenix’s life.' But it doesn’t take long for the voice to stop being that, and start being Samantha. Someone with a wide range of qualities, of which romantic is just one. Someone exceptional, unique, her.
It’s not an insignificant feat, made stronger by the fact that Johansson is actually playing someone who needs to sound and feel like a person even though, at bottom, she’s not. “One of the many things Scarlett and I were talking about,” the director told an audience at an AFI screening this week, is that “when Samantha was created she doesn’t have any fears or baggage or doubts like we do.” In Jonze’s world, creating an interesting digital character is actually more complicated than creating a human one.
Or as Johansson put it to my colleague Chris Lee recently: “It's so much more than a voice-over."
That the back story is what it is — Johansson was cast after the movie had finished shooting and recorded her part when she and Phoenix were oceans apart (Samantha Morton had initially been cast and performed the part throughout the shoot, hence the “Samantha”) — only makes it more impressive. In sports terms, it’s a quarterback hitting a well-covered receiver right in the numbers while both are wearing blindfolds.
Will Oscar voters recognize all of this? History suggests they won't. A voice performance from an animated movie has never garnered an Oscar nomination, and even hybrid live-animated roles like Andy Serkis in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or Zoe Saldana in “Avatar” tend to get short shrift.
Perhaps aware of all that, studio Warner Bros. is taking a lower-key approach, running Johansson as a supporting actor, even though a case can be made that, in terms of screen time, Johansson's is actually a lead performance. Supporting-actor categories tend to be weaker and the standards more flexible, so this, they wisely perceive, is where Johansson has the best shot.
It’s interesting that Johansson’s part is coming the same season as that of an actor who plays with the sight-sound thing in a very different way: Robert Redford. Redford is the perfect inversion of Johansson.As a desperate sailor in J.C. Chandor's nautical drama “All Is Lost,” the veteran actor barely utters a word, doing the acting with his face and body.
Redford is getting loads of Oscar attention--he's practically a shoo-in to be nominated and even considered by some as a front-runner to win. Johansson, on the other hand, has not been nearly as favored, and though "Her" has just begun screening for tastemakers in the last month, it’s hard to imagine the needle swinging wildly in her direction in the weeks ahead. Some voters will argue to themselves that voice acting requires only half the muscles, so even a great performance should only be judged half as good.
And, paradoxically, Johansson’s acting in the movie far away from the rest of the cast could hurt her. Some voters would see it as a less pure form of acting, even though many actors will tell you acting without any co-stars is exponentially more difficult.
Despite their mirrored approach, Johansson and Redford actually have a lot in common. Like Johansson, Redford is using a trademark aspect of his public persona — in this case, his cartographically lined face — and asking us to put aside all our suppositions about that trademark, as prominently isolated as it is, and believe in the character.
If Oscar voters do reward Johansson with a nomination, it would be seen by some as a sign of the expanding Motion Picture Academy mindset, one that also may one day make room for an Andy Serkis. But in the end it would mainly be a nod to Oscar tradition, a sign that, whether in a computer-generated world or an old-fashioned one, a great performance is a great performance regardless of which acting elements it draws on.
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