The Voice

12.18.13

Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Her’ Performance Deserves Oscar Love

Scarlett Johansson may be a red carpet-walking Siren in life, but she has never oozed more sexuality than she does with just her voice in 'Her.' Will the Academy oblige?

Scarlett Johansson has never been more alluring than she is in Her.

Her coy sexuality has never been so tantalizing. She’s as vivacious and gregarious as she is sensual and deep. She both gives her most nuanced performance yet and sears her status as one of the most desirable actresses working in Hollywood today.

And you never see her.

Johansson is Samantha in Her. Samantha is just a voice. She’s a new advanced operating system used by Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a Siri-like tool used to make every task in life easier, but one also capable of intuition, insight, and emotional growth akin to a human’s. She’s sensitive and soulful and bright and funny and incredibly sexy. Theodore falls in love with her, and she with Theodore.

It’s ludicrous on principle but it makes sense, and that’s owed to Johansson’s voice work. She brings a character and a love story to life with more believability and humanity than most female performances in film romances have been able to do in recent memory—without the added tool of a face and body to work with.

She deserves to be nominated for an Oscar. She probably won’t be. In fact, many voters probably won’t even consider her, finding the idea of nominating a voice performance as preposterous as falling in love with an operating system. It’s a shame, and it’s time for that to change.

Throughout the years, the conventional wisdom was that voice performances were “half performances.” Because they don’t have to convey anything or “act” with their bodies, the argument is that voice performers are only required to perform half the duties of an actor, and therefore shouldn’t be rewarded with awards attention. But with the film industry constantly evolving and progressing, remaining deaf to this genre of acting is making the Academy seem even more antiquated than so many people already perceive it to be.

To understand what makes Johansson’s performance so remarkable, it’s important to truly understand what Samantha is in Her. She’s a piece of software, but she’s programmed on a future algorithm that allows an operating system to learn about itself, develop a personality, mature, get to know others, and form intimate connections. She may even—and probably does—have feelings. “Are these feelings even real?” she wonders. “Or are they just programming?” The thought startles her. “And that really hurts. Then I get angry at myself for feeling pain.”

Johansson’s soothing rasp dances with whimsy, playfully attempting awkward humor and eager to please Theo.

Samantha is a person without a body. Theo doesn’t just call her when he needs help cleaning out his email inbox, he calls her when he wants to chat, needs advice, or is just thinking of her. Samantha obliging by picking up isn’t a virtue of it being her job to do so, but her desire to. Johansson’s soothing rasp dances with whimsy, playfully attempting awkward humor and eager to please Theo, who she finds just-so-charming. Their relationship follows the arc of any human-human love affair: giddiness, jitters, passion, and, ultimately, even jealousy and regret.

There’s a sex scene between Samantha and Theo. It’s just their voices, narrating what they’d be doing to each other if they had bodies that could unite. The screen cuts to black, leaving you with just the intensity of the passion in their words as stimulation. It may be the most intimate, realistic, and arousing sex scene of the year—and you don’t see a thing. You’re forced to question: how necessary is a physical connection, when an emotional one can be this intense?

“The two key factors in a great performance are whether anyone else could have played the role as well, and whether the character lingers after you’ve left the theater,” writes Tim Gray at Variety. There’s a small group of performances this past year that such a maxim rings true for: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Chiwetel Ejilofor in 12 Years a Slave. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t just belong on that list, she should lead that list.

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Sixty-nine percent of millennials think technology enhances personal relationships. Would that be higher if Scarlett was always on the other line?

Johansson may be a red-carpet walking Siren in real-life, but she has never oozed more sexuality, conveyed true beauty better, and brought to life a character with as much as complexity as she does with just her voice in Her.

Nominating her for an Oscar would be monumental: no alternative actor has ever been nominated before. It’s trivia that’s a bit ridiculous when you look back on the iconic voice performances of the past: James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in Star Wars, Douglas Rain as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robin Williams in Aladdin, Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo.

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Actors have won Oscars for not speaking (Jean Dujardin in The Artist). Actors have won actors for just singing (Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables). Actors have won Oscars for sassily stepping over a puddle in period clothing (Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love). Aren’t those performances as much “half performances” as any voice-only effort? Shouldn’t the year’s best performances, its best art, be rewarded, regardless on what percentage of it appears on screen?

It’s not the first time the issue’s been raised. Campaigns were waged for Murphy and DeGeneres nominations, but film buffs really rallied to the cause as motion-capture performances began transcending CGI gimmickry and started requiring actors to provide their characters with real emotional heft. There were rumblings that Zoe Saldana could break the glass ceiling for Avatar, but the rumblings roared for Andy Serkis’s work as a primate in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Wrote Rolling Stone at the time: “To watch what actor Andy Serkis does as Caesar, the lead ape in this movie, is to witness a kind of miracle…deserving an Oscar nod from an Academy long suspicious of this ‘hybrid’ performance art.”

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There are indications that a shift could be coming, and, surprisingly, they stretch back decades. Even though the Hollywood Foreign Press ruled that Johansson wasn’t eligible to be nominated at the Golden Globes, the organization did reward Robin Williams with a special award for voicing the Genie in Aladdin in 1993. BAFTA nominated Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor for Shrek in 2002, and the Critics Choice Awards put Serkis on the supporting actor shortlist for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And Johansson? She won Best Actress at this year’s Rome Film Festival, kicking off a passionate, if perhaps ultimately fruitless, awards campaign.

The issue of “invisible” performances isn’t going to go away. James Cameron just announced that three (for the love of god) Avatar sequels are about to begin production. There’s hope for you yet, Zoe Saldana! Technology in filmmaking continues to advance, which means what is possible to show on the big screen is finally catching up to the imagination. Who knows what creatures and monsters and computer-generated wonders are waiting to be brought to life by motion-capture and voice actors?

And, to explicitly relate back to Her, Siri is a real thing! Operating systems with sophisticated voices, talking computers, robots, androids—the future in those realms is boundless. Does Meryl Streep have to voice one in order for Academy to take a performance as one seriously?

As romantic as Her is, it’s also epically heartbreaking, with so much of the love between Samantha and Theo rooted on wishful thinking: “I’d kiss the corner of your mouth.” Sadly, it seems the same wistfulness will permeate all our own love affair with Johansson’s performance, as it’s not likely that Oscar will take notice.