Scarlett Johansson has always garnered a lot of attention from fans based on her looks, but there is a lot more to the actress than just pinups and magazine covers. Johansson started her acting career at a very young age, making her movie debut at the age of nine in the Rob Reiner fantasy film North. That was just the start for Johansson, as she avoided the pitfalls of other child actors and ended up growing and improving until she was ready to make it on her own, breaking out as a teenager in The Horse Whisperer and then as a young woman in the comic book adaptation Ghost World.
After that, the awards and recognition started coming for Johansson, thanks in part to working with acclaimed directors like the Coen Brothers, Sofia Coppola, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Christopher Nolan and more. Finally, Johansson was able to prove to the world that she was more than just a beautiful woman and was, in fact, a critically acclaimed actress. Today, most fans know her as a butt-kicking femme fatale, with The Avengers as her most significant role, but she has so much more in her filmography to call to memory when it comes to quality and award-winning roles. Here is a look at the 15 best Scarlett Johansson roles, ranked from worst to first.
15. GRACE, THE HORSE WHISPERER
It is almost impossible to talk about the best roles of Scarlett Johansson’s career without starting with the performance that introduced her to the world. While it wasn’t her first role in a movie, The Horse Whisperer was the first leading role for the then 13-year-old actress. Johansson played Grace, a teenager involved in an accident that injured both her and her horse. When talk centers on putting the horse down, her family contacts the famed Horse Whisperer (Robert Redford), in hopes that he can help heal the horse.
Grace was a tough character for any young actress to portray, as she loses her leg after the accident and is as broken as the horse — if not more so. Based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Evans, the movie is a melodrama but one that works thanks to a great performance by Redford and solid acting by a very young Johansson.
14. CRISTINA, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Scarlett Johansson has worked with Woody Allen on more than one occasion. While Allen’s movies are polarizing, he is usually able to pull good performances out of his cast, and Johansson is no different. At this point in her career, Johansson was already getting positive word-of-mouth praise and had previously worked with Allen a few years prior to this in Match Point.
Johansson is one of a number of excellent female actresses starring in the movie about two women who are attracted to the same man. Johansson is Cristina while Rebecca Hall stars as her friend Vicky, two American women who both fall for an artist named Antonio (Javier Bardem) while vacationing in Barcelona. Antonio’s ex-wife is played by Penelope Cruz, who also ends up thrown into the entire love triangle. It is a good performance from Johansson, who handles the Allen dialogue and quirkiness with a flourish.
13. ALEX, IN GOOD COMPANY
One year after breaking out in Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson starred in the Paul Weitz movie In Good Company. It was nearly impossible to follow up her breakout performance in 2003 with just about any role, but she did the best she could with her performance in this film as the daughter of an advertising executive who starts dating his new boss.
It sounds risqué, but the movie has her father as a 51-year old advertising veteran played by Dennis Quaid, and his new boss is a younger 26-year-old up-and-comer played by Topher Grace. It is still a little taboo because Johansson is playing an 18-year-old girl who falls for her dad’s new boss, but she makes it work. Her role is nowhere near as important as that of Quaid and Grace, but Johansson does a lot to make the relationship less creepy and more honest, something a lesser actress might have problems pulling off.
12. GRIET, GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING
Released the same year as Lost in Translation, Johansson proved in Girl with a Pearl Earring that she was not a one-hit wonder and was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Based on the 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier, Johansson stars as a 17th-century servant for the famed Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer at the time he painted his famous Girl with a Pearl Earring. The entire cast raised this fictional account of the painter and his famous work to an impressive level.
Johansson portrayed Griet, the muse for Vermeer (Colin Firth), as she helped bring out the best in his artwork. The movie is a touching tale of a girl who slowly comes into her own in a society that is out of her realm and Johansson is admirable in her performance, remaining silent for much of the film and allowing her acting to reveal her character.
11. OLIVIA, THE PRESTIGE
While much of the world was falling in love with Christopher Nolan thanks to his Dark Knight Trilogy, the director was also making some personal movies along the way, including the tale of two rival magicians in The Prestige. Nolan was even able to have Wolverine at odds with Batman while Black Widow was part of their stage act.
Hugh Jackman was magician Robert Angier and Christian Bale was working class magician Alfred Borden. The movie is a puzzle, a mystery with double-crosses and creative high concept devices, where viewers are led through a myriad of twists and turns. Scarlett Johansson had a small but important role as Angier’s assistant and lover. Everyone in this movie turned in quality performances, Johansson included.
10. ANNIE, THE NANNY DIARIES
Years before they had underlying romantic tension as members of The Avengers, Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans starred together in the comedy-drama The Nanny Diaries. Johansson is Annie, a 21-year-old college graduate who has no idea what to do with her life. She decides to take on the role of a nanny for a young boy after a misunderstanding and moves into the upscale home of the boy’s family.
It is here that Annie falls for a neighbor of the family, played by Chris Evans. Johansson is great as a normal person who finds herself caring for a young, sad child while his parents are self-destructing around them. She also holds her own with Laura Linney, the mother of the child who finds a reason to blame Annie for everything that is wrong in her life. It is a saccharine tale but one that Johansson keeps entertaining nonetheless.
9. LUCY, LUCY
It took seven entries into the list of Scarlett Johansson’s best movie roles before finally reaching one of her big action movie performances. While Johansson has been in a number of big-budget action movies, roles in films like The Island and Ghost in the Shell really have no place on this list. However, her performance in Lucy was a great blend of action and solid acting, as Johansson commands attention every time she leaps into action.
The fun action was a no-brainer, as the brilliant Luc Besson helmed this movie about a psychokinetic butt-kicking woman out for vengeance. Johansson’s Lucy doesn’t quite reach the level of Mathilda from Leon: The Professional or even Leeloo from Fifth Element, but she fits the mold and holds her own. Johansson plays Lucy like a female terminator and delivers an insanely fun performance.
8. DEEANNA, HAIL, CAESAR
In 2016, Scarlet Johansson returned to Coen Brothers after previously appearing in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The movie was Hail, Caesar!, and while not critically praised, it was a fun movie set in the world of old Hollywood. The cast was amazing, with Josh Brolin as a fixer for the movie studio and George Clooney as an actor kidnapped and held for ransom, along with a ton of fun supporting actors.
The breakout role came from Alden Ehrenreich (the future Han Solo) as a former Western-singing cowboy trying to make it in an actual Hollywood tentpole movie. As for Johansson, she stars as DeeAnna Moran, an actress who specialized in swimming movies. She becomes pregnant while shooting her new film and Brolin’s fixer has to help solve that problem for the studio. It is a perfect Coen role, as Johansson is able to flip a switch from Hollywood sweetheart to a more trashy real-life personality without missing a beat.
7. BARBARA, DON JON
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his days on the TV sitcom Third Rock From the Sun. In 2013, the actor flexed his creative muscle by writing, directing and starring in his own movie, Don Jon. In the film, Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon Martello, an Italian American who cares about the bare necessities of life, including a distinct love of… “blue” movies.
Johansson is Barbara, a woman that he meets in a bar, and the two develop a strong attraction even though she demands a long courtship and over instant sexual gratification. The two end up in that relationship, but Jon’s love of rather more mature online entertainment threatens to tear them apart, as does Barbara’s insistence on controlling everything about him. It is an interesting character, as she is the love interest but carries the role of the dominating girlfriend and true antagonist of the story to perfection.
6. REBECCA, GHOST WORLD
Ghost World remains one of the best comic book adaptations in movie history that has nothing to do with superheroes. Based on the Daniel Clowes’ comic book, Ghost World tells the story of two teenagers named Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) who live in a small American city. They meet a strange middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who Enid wants to help break out of his shell.
Released in 2001, this was an early Scarlett Johansson role, the actress only 16 at the time, and a few years before she became an American sex symbol. It almost seems strange now to look back and consider Johansson as an outsider, but she pulled off the awkwardness well. While this is Thora Birch’s story, it wouldn’t feel right without Johansson’s character to push her into action. This was before Johansson became a major film star, but the seeds were planted here.
5. NOLA, MATCH POINT
Before she appeared in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scarlet Johansson starred in two other Woody Allen movies. One was Scoop, where Johansson was good in an otherwise lackluster Allen release. However, the first time the two collaborated was her best performance for the auteur. That was when Allen cast her as Nola, an actress who started an affair with a married man in Match Point.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as a retired tennis pro named Chris who falls for his friend Tom’s girlfriend Nola but ends up marrying Tom’s sister Chloe instead. Later, he ends up in an affair with Nola and realizes that he has to do something drastic or he could risk everything. Johansson delivers her best performance for Allen as the woman who wants something more out of her life but isn’t ready for the consequences of those dreams.
4. BLACK WIDOW, THE MCU
The most famous Scarlett Johansson movie role is easily her part as Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She started off in Iron Man 2 and then took on a major role in both Avengers movies, as well as the Captain America sequels. While there have been complaints about her importance in the films, Johansson has given it her all.
While Black Widow started off as just a supporting character, Jon Favreau allowed her to showcase her skilled fighting in Iron Man 2 and she held her own well against the predominant male members of The Avengers. Possibly her best moments came in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, where she was a great antithesis to Steve Rogers. There are now rumors of a Black Widow solo movie, and that could finally give Johansson the showcase she needs to prove she is just as great, if not better, than many of her male costars.
3. SAMANTHA, HER
When it comes to turning in great roles, Her gave Scarlett Johansson a chance to deliver a great performance and never once make an appearance physically in the entire film. Johansson has done many voice acting roles in her career, with The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Sing and The Jungle Book as perfect examples. However, Her was a very different type of movie.
Directed by Spike Jonze, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, an introverted man who grows depressed after his wife files for divorce. This is a near-future science fiction movie where computer operating systems can learn and grow psychologically, becoming companions to lonely people. Theodore’s system is named Samantha (Johansson), and as she learns more about him, she tries to help him come out of his shell. The two eventually fall in love, and the film somehow makes this seem perfectly natural. It sounds strange, but Her was ultimately a beautiful and a thought-provoking film.
2. CHARLOTTE, LOST IN TRANSLATION
Scarlett Johansson was a promising actress before Lost in Translation, but most people just saw her as a sex symbol at the time. However, when she took the role as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s breakout movie, people took notice. This film included a career performance for Bill Murray, who was able to shed his role as a funny man and prove that he had a lot more to offer Hollywood than just jokes.
As for Johansson, she portrayed Charlotte, a college graduate who is unsure of her future with her husband, John. While on a trip to Tokyo, she meets Bob (Murray), an older movie star going through a midlife crisis. The two develop a non-romantic friendship, and they are able to help each other as both feel lost and feel out of place in their own lives. Johansson won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for the performance.
1. THE FEMALE, UNDER THE SKIN
The same year that Scarlett Johansson impressed critics with her performance as the voice of an AI bot in Her, she also turned in the best role of her career in the Jonathan Glazer science fiction movie Under the Skin. Released in 2013, this film has Johansson portraying an alien who preys on men in Scotland.
The movie had a chance to end up as a generic sci-fi horror movie, with a plot very similar to the Natasha Henstridge movie Species. However, unlike that visceral horror movie, Under the Skin is a brilliant sci-fi movie with a lot to say about sexual identification, gender roles and the power of seduction. The entire film is like a lucid dream and Johansson is able to take her role as an alien being and deliver a career-defining performance that remains her all-time best.
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