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Defending Anthony Lane's Scarlett Johansson Profile

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by Sam Adams
April 1, 2014 12:05 PM
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ScarJo

As defenses of the (apparently) indefensible goes, Adam Nayman's "Showgirls" book just got pushed into second place by the Guardian critic Tom Shone's apologia for Anthony Lane's much-derided New Yorker profile of Scarlett Johansson. If Lane's "Her Again" was a movie, its aggregate rating would be distinctly rotten. Try putting together a trailer with these notices:

"Salivates over ScarJo... refuses to treat her as a human subject, with qualities of mind!" -- Katy Waldman, Slate

"The worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker... 5000 words of empty slobbering!" -- Esther Breger, the New Republic

"A scopophilic guilty pleasure!" -- Bronwen Clune, the Guardian

"I wind up imagining Anthony Lane jerking off to his own poorly conceived metaphors about Scarlett Johansson’s cheekbones!" -- Kristin Iverson, Brooklyn Magazine

"Pardon me, but this is gross!" -- Kay Steiger, Talking Points Memo

No wonder they didn't show it to critics first.

But Shone, in a post titled "Playing Hardball With the Male Gaze," argues that Lane's article lies in a long tradition of critical mash notes:

It’s what happens when you send a critic to write a profile. "The first duty of a film critic -- the sole qualification, to be honest -- is to fall regularly, and pointlessly, in love with the people onscreen," wrote Lane in his review of "Before Sunrise." Send them to meet the people behind the people onscreen and the results tend toward controlled delirium.

As Farran Smith Nehme, herself no fan of Lane's piece, did in a Twitter conversation, Shone points to Kenneth Tynan's (in)famous profile of Greta Garbo, which begins, "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober." 

Objective? Of course not.  Smitten? Almost certainly. Personal info? Almost none. By the standards of today’s celebrity profiles, Tynan’s piece is as much of a wash-out as Lane’s.... Tynan gave us the woman on top, the triumphant exterior, the shining chassis, lovingly polished  in a 3,000-word rhapsody to lay alongside James Agee's prose bouquet to Liz Taylor and Pauline Kael's to Cary Grant. "If it is true that no clothes seem meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not in clothes at all… She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well as spiritual," he wrote, adding "I dwell on Garbo’s physical attributes because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated. Too much is written about how actors feel, a too little about how they look."

Today, most would call Tynan's profile "problematic," beginning with the presumptuous assertion of that telltale "one." But to accept that the true purpose of a celebrity profile is, in Waldman's oh-so-Second-Wave phrase, to "peel back the sex appeal... and show us the woman underneath," is to forsake any true insight before you've even begun. That Johansson's sex appeal is some sort of suit that she can peel off -- in a manner strangely resonant with the alien she plays in "Under the Skin" -- defies biology as well as common sense, and the idea that a journalist given several minutes or even several hours with her is like to accomplish that feat is a pipe dream at best. What makes a person, male or female, interesting to watch on screen has as much if not more to do with how they use their body in front of a lens and how light bounces off the planes of their faces as it does their difficult childhood or their views on settlements in the West Bank.

That's not to say that Lane's profile is a shining example of the form; even Shone demurs to press that point. (To be honest, my general antipathy to Lane's writing makes it difficult for me to read more than a few paragraphs at a time.) But there's a hint of puritanical denial in the anti-Lane jeremiads, as if the mere acknowledgement that an actress is possessed of a body at all is off limits, let alone any consideration of how a canny and intelligent woman might choose to use that body as an expressive weapon. Elle's Justine Harman wrote a post entitled "Seeing Scarlett Johansson Naked Make Me Uncomfortable," in which she describes feeling physical discomfort at the sight of Johansson, un-toned, un-made-up in "Under the Skin":

After "Under the Skin," I will never look at Scarlett Johansson the same way. Not because she plays a homicidal E.T. but because she lets us behind the curtain. She's not physically perfect. Her breasts are uneven. She has lower belly fat. And as a cog in the celebrity fan machine, I've been conditioned to catalog these changes.

 Here's Shone, one more time:

We are probably more, not less, conflicted about the question of looks onscreen than we were in 1961. The level of beauty required from our actors and actresses is probably even higher than it was in the hey-day of the studio system -- just look at the winner's paddock at this year's Oscars -- but our denial that this is so is ten times greater, with performers fleeing any hint that their success is tied to their sexual availability as if the mere mention of it were career death. 

Clearly, this should be the case with both genders: If Scarlett Johansson's body is a legitimate object of study, so is Chris Evans' or Matthew McConaughey's. (Let's start with how great McConaughey looked in his "True Detective" suits.) Actors often call their bodies their instruments. Why shouldn't we talk about how they play them?

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