When first getting into film, I always wondered why casting directors got such high billing, appearing in the pre-film credits with the director and actors, as opposed to the post-film credits with the technicians. I also wondered why that, of all jobs, is almost exclusively occupied by women, but that is a question for another day. Over the years though, despite more or less agreeing with the Bressonian belief that conventional acting is over-valued (especially in American cinema), I have come to recognise that the performer can make a film, or as is the case for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, break it.
Scarlet Johansson is a perfectly fine actress. However, she has by this point acquired a substantial star persona, which inevitably brings an extra-textual element to all of her performances. Once a star has acquired this ‘baggage,’ they tend to do one of two things: either use this newly acquired persona to their advantage, or attempt to ignore it altogether. The latter is the route that Johansson has adopted, to the detriment of the film.
The opening act of Under the Skin, which goes on for a substantial period of time, sees Johansson driving around Scotland in a white van picking-up random Scottish men.
There is, it has to be said, a otherworldliness to these encounters. Johansson’s performance achieves what it sets out to achieve, her encounters with the men are adequately peculiar. She sounds like she has no autonomy, and is only saying what she thinks she needs to say rather than what she wants to say, if indeed she wants to say anything at all; and if she did, one gets the impression she wouldn’t know how to say it. Then there’s the way Glazer shots the picture. When there’s a shot from Johansson’s perspective, he uses focus to portray a bleary-eyed perception of the world, and the shots linger slightly too long on seemingly inconsequential things, as if studying them for the first time.
However, despite all that Glazer aims for – i.e. all that I have described in the previous paragraph – all I could think while watching was what I have described two paragraphs back: Johansson driving around Scotland in a white van, picking-up random Scottish men.
What must be taken into account, is what the persona of Johansson has come to reflect. This means breaking down her public appearances, in interviews, on posters, in magazines, and analysing the image being perpetuated. After some cursory research, it’s clear to see that Johansson’s image doesn’t stray too far from the norm, in terms of A-list actors. She is supposed to be likeable. She is almost impossibly attractive, which gives her a head-start, but she also appears on chat-shows, does the rounds in magazines, all in a consolidated effort to make her appealing to as large an audience as possible.
Not that there is anything wrong with this, and indeed, it’s been the norm in Hollywood since stars emerged. I still maintain that Cary Grant is the greatest film actor of all time, because he makes bad films good, simply by appearing in them; an effect that is only achieved because of Grant’s star persona. Johansson’s persona, for me at least, is one of what Tudor (1) terms emotional affinity. This basically means that I have a vague emotional connection with her, as a result of her star persona and role in the narrative (2). I, and I am generalising here, would guess that is the relationship between Johansson and most other audience members. Johansson, as with almost all modern-day ‘stars’, embodies a novelistic conception of character, in that her persona off-screen very much resembles the type of character popularised during the emergence of the novel as a medium. There are too many aspects to the novelistic depiction of character (3) to cover adequately, but briefly, they have a certain autonomy, and interiority, and they develop as characters over the course of the narrative. This is opposed to a ‘type’ character, common in earlier literature, which is a character representative of a certain human ideal. This isn’t to say stars cannot be representations, but there is a presumed depth behind that representation, by virtue of star actually being a ‘real’ person.
Johansson’s persona works in her favour when appearing in films like The Avengers, when she needs to be instantly recognisable as the good guy. Her persona doesn’t work so well in Under the Skin, which is a role that surely requires as few preconceptions as possible. A good example of a similar required colourlessness, is Keir Dullea’s role as Dr. David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hardly a major star at the time, and even less so for modern audiences, Dullea’s character acts as a representation of humanity. Sy-fi films, it would seem, generally befit from using unknowns, because the characters in Sy-fi are generally (although, not always) representative of something.
Now of course my particular sentiment is predicated on my previous experience with Johansson as both an actress and a person. As a result, my response to the film will differ from the viewer who has never heard the name Scarlet Johansson. It seems to me unlikely that anyone who has never heard of Scarlet Johansson would be going to see a film like Under the Skin, nevertheless responses will differ based on personal experience, and for me it’s what undercuts what the film is trying to do.
Which brings me on to the film to which Under the Skin is most comparable, and that does a better job of casting the lead, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie’s ‘out of this world’ motif, both in his music and persona, make him perfectly suited to Nick Rogue’s surrealist influenced, Sy-fi classic. Obviously quite a specific case, but there is never that barrier with Bowie that there is for Johansson, because rather than the influence of pre-conceptions being ignored, The Man Who Fell to Earth uses Bowie to its advantage.
Any star looking to break free from the confines of blockbuster cinema, must do so with a certain awareness of themselves. There are many examples of films deconstructing the star phenomenon, notably Bridget Bardot in Le Mépris, or Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (although it could be argued she’s playing Monroe, Ekberg had a similar persona at the time). This may seem restricting, but films must take persona into account before casting, and only if the persona is appropriate should the star be cast. It’s why The Man Who Fell to Earth works, and Under the Skin does not.
- Andrew Tudor, Image and Influence (1974)
- For more on this see Richard Dyer’s Stars (1979)
- Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957) (Summary in Stars )