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The Schmooze

What Controversy? Scarlett Johansson’s Future Looks Grand.

Depending on where you get your news, Scarlett Johansson is either the top of the A-list or a pathetically out-of-touch has-been.

Which one is it?

Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, Johansson has been celebrated for stirring turns in movies by the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen and Sofia Coppola. She’s also made big money in romantic comedies and Michael Bay movies — and by taking down bad guys in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2016, she was the highest-paid actress of the year as well as the highest draw at the box office, male or female.

Yet despite her success and packed schedule, Johansson still found time to make herself unpopular.

How does a bombshell Tony-winning superhero become the butt of a cultural joke? How did Scarlett Johansson go from enchanting the world to practically foaming at the mouth while insisting “I should be able to play a tree”?

The controversy began when Johansson starred as Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 movie “Ghost in the Shell,” which was based off a Japanese manga, or comic, of the same name. Johansson is white. Kusanagi is a fictional cybernetic human with a Japanese name and Japanese creator who is, in the manga, drawn to look like a Japanese woman. So Johansson’s casting and her defense of her choice to take on the role drew months of controversy that ultimately overshadowed the otherwise poorly-received film.

Just over a year later, Johansson proved that lightning can, in fact, strike twice when she accepted the starring role in the upcoming movie “Rub and Tug,”, a biopic of the ’70s-era mobster Dante “Tex” Gill, who lived as a transgender man. Johansson was far from the first cisgender star to sign on to portray a trans character; Jared Leto won an Oscar for doing it in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) and Eddie Redmayne was nominated for one for doing it in “The Danish Girl” (2015). But by the time Johansson’s casting was announced, the public was somewhat less ignorant about transgender issues than they had been even just a handful of years before. Johansson’s casting drew criticism, especially given the prior controversy over her role in “Ghost in the Shell.”

The outcry came to a head when Johansson responded glibly to the criticism, which included the voices of transgender activists and actresses. While she ultimately gave up the role, for months after doing so she seemed unwilling to let the issue drop, bringing it up unprompted in an interview in As If magazine this past July. “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job,” she announced, mid-interview. “A lot of political correctness is being reflected in art,” she added. “I feel art should be free of restrictions.”

It’s certainly an appealing argument. But Johansson — an A-list, bankable blonde bombshell— being cast as a transgender man is actually a perfect example of the way in which art, for many, is riddled with restrictions. No transgender person, after all, has been given the opportunity to anchor a major movie. It’s less that Johansson shouldn’t be “allowed” to play the role, and more that the refusal to cast a transgender person as a transgender character shows how facile and blinkered mainstream art about transgender people tends to be. Yes, Johansson’s acting talent is something to behold. But there are untold numbers of performers whose talent we will never see, because they are not white, straight, and cisgendered.

Between “Ghost in the Shell” and “Rub and Tug,” a not-insubstantial group of people on social media insisted that Johansson had damned herself to a life of unpopularity. But Johansson was the highest-paid actress in the world in 2016 and in 2018, although she didn’t crack the list in 2017. Financially, and, apparently, in terms of the roles she is offered, she hasn’t suffered. In fact, her career is better than ever.

In 2019, Johansson will anchor Noah Baumbach’s drama “Marriage Story,” clearly eying Oscar statuettes with co-star Adam Driver.In 2020, on the heels of multiple lucrative appearances in Marvel franchise movies, Johansson will finally anchor her own “Black Widow” movie. Well, you may bluster, at least she’s been boycotted by Hollywood’s cool new progressives — but that’s not true, either. In fact, Johansson will take on a deeply sympathetic role in “Jojo Rabbit,” the Maori and Jewish director Taika Waititi’s risky Hitler satire movie; she’ll play a German woman who shelters a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust. While the movie will no doubt be polarizing, the fact that beloved progressive Waititi put faith in Johansson suggests that she’s lost nothing.

So. Lefties are angry at Johansson. Johansson is still fuming over what she sees as censorship and restriction. And Hollywood — both major studios and auteurs — clearly doesn’t give a damn. For better or for worse, it’s naive to think that Johansson’s missteps have had much of an impact on her career. For her haters, it’s going to be a rough year.

Johansson in a trailer for the Oscar-bait Noah Baumbach movie, “Marriage Story”:

Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny

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