The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

My apologies for a lack of content this month. It’s been a rough May. With all that’s going on right now I’m surprised I’m even this sane. I sincerely hope my fellow bloggers and readers have been holding up okay and doing whatever they can to stay healthy, positive and productive/creative.

The one thing I wanted to make sure I kept up with this month is the Actor Profile feature, particularly as I missed out on the first two months this year. This month’s SJP is a good example of what happens when you gamble and select a movie you’ve never seen before. This crime noir from the early 2000s is a fairly obscure title, even within the context of the Coens’ filmography. All I knew going in is that this movie features a very young Scarlett Johansson, at something like 15 years old, and that she isn’t a star in it. As it turns out, the part is barely above a cameo appearance. Still, for however short-lived her appearance is, the role is narratively important and it’s fun to see her in a Coen brothers movie before fame came a-knockin’ on her door. (She would later appear in her second Coen brothers movie, the 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!)

Scarlett Johansson as Rachel ‘Birdy’ Abundas in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There*

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong. (IMDb)

Character Background: Birdy is a minor supporting character who ends up having a major impact on the main character of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in 1940s Santa Rosa, California — a man barely present in his own life. The teenage daughter of alcoholic lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), Birdy is a typical high school student who hasn’t set her sights on any particular career path just yet, though she thinks she might want to become a veterinarian.

She might also have a talent for the piano, but who could really say? Not Ed, that’s for sure, who can’t distinguish a classical Beethoven sonata from a warm-up exercise. Birdy has a strange effect on Ed, the man who never talks. When he first comes across her at a Christmas party thrown at the department store where his wife (Frances McDormand) works, he’s immediately entranced. Drawn to her beauty, sure, but also to the beauty of the music. Birdy is the walking manifestation of hope for someone as hopeless as Ed. Once his wife is sent to jail he finds himself spending more time with her, and through major fault of his own assumes — fantasizes, ultimately — a gifted pianist with great potential, whose career he imagines himself managing. It’s all hogwash of course; he’s not only old enough to be her father but there’s a fundamental misperception of who each other really is that makes this relationship dynamic both amusing and awkward, something that tends to come to a head in that bizarro car ride scene.

What she brings to the movie: Birdy may be more of a plot device than a three-dimensional character but Johansson, at just 15 years old, already has presence and here she’s wielding that powerfully seductive voice to her character’s advantage, turning a fairly typical teenager into a symbol of temptation. She also just fits in to the 1940s aesthetic, her face cherubic and hair in a short bob and the conservative use of make-up allowing her natural beauty to shine through.

Key Scene: One of but a few pretty bizarre forks in the road in the second half of this increasingly surreal movie. Oh, heavens to Betsy, it’s all just a weird scene misunderstanding.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb 

14 thoughts on “The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

    • Haha! Yeah unfortunately I think I’ll be giving that movie the old swerve. I have quite a few big movies of hers to talk about, though I do vaguely remember seeing Eight Legged Freaks.

      Or wait. Was that Arachnophobia?

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  1. I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There at the theater in October 2001. I don’t really remember the movie very well but Scarlett Johansson stood out to me. Mainly because she looked like she was 12 but did something to Billy Bob Thornton in a car that proved she wasn’t shy.

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    • Yeah this scene is uh, rather interesting to say the least. You might say it . . . goes over the edge a little bit.

      I’m glad I saw this. It’s slow-going for sure but to see James Gandolfini again was a real treat. Man I miss that guy.

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  2. She was great in this, I remember thinking when Ed first takes interest in her that it was going to go towards a Lolita vibe, which it does I guess in a very subtle way, as you put in very well, something like hope for someone as hopeless as Ed..

    This is actually one of my favourites from the Coens, though excluding The Ladykillers (go watch the original dude, it has Peter Sellers!) I have loved every single film. They use the black and white to create some really nice lighting/shadow effects, and I seem to remember some scenes where Ed is simply surrounded by blackness as he commits one of the evil acts without emotion. Such an apt title.

    Perhaps I like it so much cos I saw this before I even knew the name Coen, or cos I’m a big fan of Thornton, I have seen it at least four or five times I reckon but its been a while. Thanks mate, I think its time to see it again, my defective brain has forgotten enough of it again hehe. Though the climax/ending, I can’t forget that, thanks in large part to Roger Deakins.

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    • I can definitely see why you regard it so highly, I really enjoyed this one! Not only is it a gorgeous looking homage but there are one or two scenes in here that are pretty damn vintage Coen Brothers. The car wreck might just be the most Coen Brothers thing I’ve ever seen. Billy Bob Thornton fits right into their world, and I agree he’s a great actor.

      The ending, too — yeah that’s a doozie. This movie starts off really slowly and moves that way for a while but come the end I was completely and utterly hooked. I can’t wait to see it again.

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      • That’s awesome you liked it so much. Nostalgia is definitely a part of it, but reading this confirms why its right up there for me. 😀

        Tho even their lesser regarded stuff are good films, like this one, not a lotta people talk about it

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  3. I’d actually completely forgotten that Johansson was even in The Man Who Wasn’t There. I enjoyed the movie quite a lot, even though it’s a bit more style than substance (though I suppose it deserves another viewing; was also meaning to rewatch Barton Fink as well, another Coen brothers film I haven’t seen in some time).

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    • It is a really fleeting appearance but Johansson’s got this, I don’t know, almost ethereal presence to her that makes her memorable in those few scenes she’s in. And she’s definitely in one of the movie’s most famous/bizarre!

      I still haven’t seen Barton Fink, or Miller’s Crossing. I think those are up next on my ‘Coen Brothers Movies I’m Missing Still’ list.

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    • Rewatch it dude, for sure. I’ll give you that, style over substance for sure hey, The Coens certainly didn’t use black and white just for the hell of it hey! The totally flat manner in which Ed acts…it makes some of his actions not seem as awful as they really are. I’d recommend a rewatch, though like I said below I llke all THEIR films, even True Grit is really enjoyed, more than the original. Its as if they learnt from the ladykillers how to recreate an old film properly. Have you seen the original 1955 one with Peter Sellers? Its a riot, very English humour 😀

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      • Heh, I’ve always been a big fan of the Coen brothers, and to be honest off the top of my head they really don’t have any misfires in their filmography (i’m an ardent defender of Hail Caesar and the Hudsucker Proxy).

        I haven’t seen the original Ladykillers (and to be honest can’t remember much about the Coens’ remake), but I do always enjoy Peter Sellers. There’s actually a pretty interesting looking doc about him and Ghost in the Noonday coming out soon.

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        • I definitely have to look up that doco!!

          The original Ladykillers’ foil was an innocent old lady, which was half the reason it worked so well. The Coens changed that character in almost every way conceivable, if you remembered it better I reckon you’d consider it their only misfire as I do. Still, being a Coens film, it is far from terrible. I highly recommend it mate, a brilliant dry English comedy – I can see why they were attracted to it for that reason.

          That’s also why I reckon they learned from it, True Grit changed just enough to be its own movie but not what made the original great. I’ll still never be a fan of Damon though.

          As for Proxy and Caesar, I’m right there with you. I loved both despite the alleged flaws,.. Hudsucker especially is one of my favourites.

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    • Yes it definitely seems like an overlooked role of hers. There’s a calming quality to her presence in this movie — it’s not a showy role but it’s one you definitely notice. I’m really glad I decided to knock this one off the list, both for Scarlett and the Coen brothers

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