It is incredibly exhilarating to watch the Best Actress Oscar race this year. A primary reason for that is facial and physical transformation. Oscar winners Charlize Theron (as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell) and Renee Zellweger (Judy Garland) have become unrecognisable to play real life characters. And Saoirse Ronan is amongst the youngest Oscar nominees to have five nominations to her credit at 25, after the nod to her performance in Little Women.
But the most interesting face this year is Scarlett Johansson. The world's highest-paid female actor by a wide margin, and also the actor with the third highest record of blockbusters (male and female), Johansson has never had an Oscar nomination or win before. And she has been acting since she was a kid.
Johansson joins an elite club of actors to earn double nominations in the same year. She is in the Best Actress race alongside Theron, Renee, Cynthia Erivo (Harriett), and Ronan. She is also nominated in the Best Supporting Actress Category for her turn as a single mother in Nazi Germany in Jojo Rabbit, alongside Laura Dern in Marriage Story, Florence Pugh in Little Women, Kathy Bates in Richard Jewell, and Margon Robbie in Bombshell.
In Marriage Story, she plays an actor going through a divorce. She is leaving a husband she does not hate or wish to get back at. Instead, she just feels overrun and ignored in his professional quest. She plays this character with certainty and anger. She pours her heart into bringing her conflict, when she debates whether or not to hire an emaciated, relentless divorce lawyer (a delightfully ambiguous Laura Dern). Marriage Story is unfiltered emotional drama, contemporary and poignant, which is rare in the current spectrum of prestige cinema and superhero movies or biopics/historical dramas.
In the Best Supporting Actress category, Johansson's biggest competitor ironically seems to be her co-actor from A Marriage Story, Laura Dern. Johansson has played a single mother in Nazi Germany that helps a Jewish girl hide and survive during the Holocaust. She gives a controlled, subtle performance in a powerful comic satire that has added a dimension to the Nazi-World War II narrative. But the performance that stands out is that of Dern's, simply because it reminds one of multiple post modern hyperbolic, appearance obsessed workingwomen in cities. Dern plays the zealous divorce lawyer set to protect her client's interest with a touch of over reactivity; a bit like her character in Big Little Lies.
Her Oscar nominations aside, Johansson has acted in experimental cinema right from the beginning. Lost in Translation, Match Point, Lucy, and A Love Song for Bobby Long were beyond box office aspirations. Once the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) came calling, she catapulted to global stardom overnight as Black Widow.
Irrespective of whether she wins an Oscar, Johansson is now part of an elite group of actors, constituting less than 15 in the history of the Oscars. Double nominations in two categories are a rare feat. Amongst the ones in recent memory are Al Pacino in 1992, for Scent of A Woman (Best Actor, an award he won) and Glengarry Glen Ross (Best Supporting Actor). In 1993, both Emma Thompson and Holly Hunter won double Oscar nominations. Thompson was nominated in the Best Actress category for The Remains of the Day and Best Supporting Actress for In the Name of the Father. She did not win an award. Holly Hunter was nominated for Best Actress in The Piano and Best Supporting Actress in The Firm. She won the Best Actress that year in 1993. Julianne Moore won double nominations in 2002 for Far from Heaven (Best Actress) and The Hours (Best Supporting Actress) but did not win an award.
Typically, double nominated actors do not win on the Oscar night. But for Johansson, this award comes at an important time of her stellar film career. She will helm her own Avengers movie Black Widow this year.
Johansson is a global movie icon but is also a fiercely private person. In the past, documentaries have featured her make police calls personally to call off paparazzi chasing her car to click photos of her spending time with her daughter and ex- boyfriend Romain Duriac. Focused entirely on making her roles stand out, this 35-year-old super heroine's double nomination is adequate validation of her success and popularity.