SO WE STILL have movie stars. That such entities exist in 2014 is something of a miracle. Despite evolving hi-tech diversions or the rising groan of public disenchantment, movie theaters can still sell out based primarily on the twinkle in an actress’s eyes or the shape of an actor’s jawline. We still imitate and resent these people. We still wonder if they’re people at all while tuning into their annual ceremonies to see what heady memories can be made when they present statuettes to one another. Movie stars are part of an old-fashioned idea, but a persistent one at this late hour. And many of them have the retweets to prove it.
One of smartest and funniest champions of cinema stardom, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane can be as overjoyed as an award presenter when witnessing true onscreen magnetism. Whether he’s lauding Cary Grant, Bill Murray, Grace Kelly or Julia Roberts, Lane aligns himself with the incandescence, matching his prose to their mesmerizing turns while never ignoring the frivolity of the whole endeavor of film in the first place. Though he’s been called too jokey before, his reviews and profiles appreciate that what has always been at play in the movies is both high art and high camp, ridiculous fun and dead serious business.
His latest profile on Scarlett Johansson, “Her Again,” confirms Johansson’s allure as the real deal. However, this time around he’s been flagged as bogus, in a reaction essay, “Anthony Lane’s Scarlett Johansson Profile Turns the New Yorker Into a Men’s Magazine,” by Esther Breger in the New Republic.
According to Breger, Lane’s is “the worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker.” His praise for Johansson is deemed “embarrassing” and “creepy.” She compares his piece to a People Magazine Sexiest Woman of the Year article and a Maxim spread, adding that at least the glossies are honest in their sexism and clear in their desire to simply sell more magazines. Lane’s offense is worse, however, because his aspirations are high-brow. Possibly even literary.
Anthony Lane does indeed sweet-talk Scarlet Johansson. Writing about Her (last year’s best original screenplay Oscar winner), he describes the “honey” voice that even disembodied is stunning. Lane recalls Johansson in Vicky Christina Barcelona as “…gilded to behold. She seemed to be made from champagne.” There are the “…eyes with heavy lids, the major-league mouth.” This woman is, in short, “radiant.” In the same piece, he also names Bill Murray as “the lord and master of underreaction.”
These words are reminiscent of a line about Julia Roberts, when he summed up her general appeal following the release of Erin Brockovich as an angel who wants to be your friend. Or how enthralled he was when a “golden” Jude Law first melted the screen in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Or his labeling of George Clooney in The Peacemaker as “human catnip.” But Breger must have missed these particular writings because, according to her, this kind of salivating never happens over a male star. She specifically claims it’s impossible to imagine that The New Yorker would ever cover the physical attributes of Matthew McConaughey or Michael Fassbender, both of whom the magazine specifically has.
When actors strike us as golden lords and masters, or actresses look like angels, made of champagne and speaking with honey in their voices, are we doing them a disservice to say so? Isn’t this why we have Hollywood? Or is there really such a place at all anymore?
Breger’s essay has the effect, intended or not, of making sure the idea of movie stardust gets vacuumed up until nothing worthy of note remains. She essentially offers critics and cinephiles two choices: either we treat stars as exactly the same as all the rest of us, human beings with zero exceptionality, or else we stick to discussing their boobs, abs and asses.
Sadly, there’s a glut of both in entertainment coverage. But when did being dull—whether an ordinary shlub or blandly oversexed mannequin—become a prerequisite for appearing twenty-feet tall on a silver screen? Maybe something has to do with the fact that the screens aren’t even silver anymore, just jet black, seen through 3D glasses or swipable with the touch of our finger. Perhaps the change occurred when entertainment media coverage and social network awards show wrap-ups became obsessed with capturing those moments when a star appears just like us—walking out of a Starbucks wearing no makeup, eating pizza or tripping in an Oscar dress (again). I’m happy Jennifer Lawrence is like me, but I’m more interested that she might have the potential to be dazzling. I laughed at the viral video last year of Mila Kunis being interviewed by a flummoxed young British journalist in which she encouraged the guy to chuck the tedious press junket questions and ask instead what beer she likes and if she’d be up for a drink at the pub later. It was charming in its own way, but it’s Kunis—as glowing as the Hawaiian sun—lighting up the otherwise forgettable Forgetting Sarah Marshall that lasts instead.
Anthony Lane has shaped my sensibility for cinema ever since the early nineties. He’s never been interested—or in any case doesn’t shine as a critic—in attempting to learn what kind of nail polish remover a star uses or how she feels about filibuster reform or what the baby’s name might be. Lane steers, uncharacteriscally, in that direction in the Johansson profile by addressing her involvement in Oxfam and SodaStream, two groups at odds over a stance on settlements in the West Bank. He touches on the speculation du jour of Woody Allen’s past transgressions, about which Johansson has pointed out elsewhere that it’s nothing but useless guesswork. You get the sense neither one of them wanted to linger on such matters (Johansson explicitly asked not to discuss her pregnancy). Both Johansson and Lane are, I’m willing to wager, waiting to discuss the subtle way she bites her lower lip.
After all, shouldn’t we all be? Haven’t we come to the movies for an escape? And if we’re lucky, a renewed awareness of aesthestics? Johansson is a movie star, not an economist or a shrink or a savior. That we shouldn’t expect her to be is a point media voices and comment board ranters have made many times, yet we continually ask a superstar about the sober matters of the actual world they’re not really living in while an essay in The New Republic decries a film critic for not “reporting” the movie star’s thoughts on another country’s and another person’s unrelated affairs.
Lane counts Johansson as someone who has “faith in the gleam of stardom, and the polished necessity of its allure.” For me, if there is any real fault with this profile it could be that he elevates and reveres her too much. He’s ready to put Scarlet Johansson in the same league as Grace Kelly which, in my estimation and despite my allegiance to Lane’s opinions, might be a little hasty. I’m not sure I’d call Johansson a great and monumental actress yet. Though she may be gorgeous, I don’t find her presence as commanding or as nuanced (Naomi Watts or Amy Adams might get my vote instead). But I welcome the idea that a classic star could be rising out of the contemporary faces.
Still, I’m in the minority with any reservations about Johansson. From France this year, I watched the Cesars (the French Oscars) in which Johansson was given an honorary award and the presenters drooled over her until even Quentin Tarantino sitting nearby seemed to find it excessive. Thank goodness the French, the standard-bearers of the aesthetic notion of truth as beauty, are willing to concede Hollywood inspiration. With them, I think Lane is right that Johansson has grasped, in a relatively short amount of time, what is redeeming about mega-watt movie stars. Johansson realizes their place, Lane writes, as “…unreachable creatures, whose rituals we yearn to uncover and to mimic.”
Johansson rests in the gleam. She knows that she can be declared radiant without it being an insult while at once understanding that most moviegoers in America, in France and in the world still desperately need to believe that she’s for real.
We can, and always will, argue about the ramifications Hollywood fantasies have on a global culture and when and where our adoration risks turning to gross ogling. But if we can’t bother with the look of these people up there, we may need to think about relinquishing fantasy altogether.
We’re better off if we can allow critics like Anthony Lane salvage the aspects of cinema that can shine, whether it’s Grace Kelly’s slow motion kiss to James Stewart in Rear Window or Scarlett Johansson’s sly smile in Don Jon as she asks her date in a snappy Jersey accent “You like movies?”
When these moments work, it’s okay to applaud. This is entertainment we’re working with. And if we can resist wiping away the stardust, we might even be able to call it beauty.