Scarlett Johansson: A Hollywood Curse Strikes Again?

She's smart, talented, and has an uncanny knack for ending up in stinkers. What's getting lost in translation at the box office?

Is Scarlett Johansson the next Ben Affleck? Every few years Hollywood seems to produce a star beloved by directors, but with some sort of reverse Midas touch.

Years back, it was Eddie Murphy, who went from mega-star to loser when he churned out such bombs as Pluto Nash and I Spy before recovering his stroke. Kevin Costner still seems to be in the penalty box, although his upcoming action film, The Guardian, may change that. And there's the sad story of Ben Affleck: good-looking, kind-hearted, talented, and death to just about any film he's in. (Remember 2004's back-to-back stinkers, Saving Christmas and Jersey Girl?)

Well, welcome to box-office hell, Scarlett. An intelligent woman with some two dozen films to her credit, Johansson, 21, has everything that Hollywood wants in its starlets. She's charming and she genuinely can act. Better yet, she's drop-dead gorgeous. But of late, she seems to inject poison into just about every film that has her name in the credits.


  Her latest effort, The Black Dahlia, got a hefty marketing blitz and starred her love interest, fellow heartthrob Josh Hartnett. It had legendary director Brian DePalma behind the camera. Still, it tanked at the box office, opening below industry expectations with $10 million (second to The Rock and his prison football flick Gridiron Gang). The film noir murder mystery, made for around $40 million, will be lucky to gross 20. Johansson’s publicist said the actress is in the midst of filming in London and was unavailable for comment.

Add that to a résumé that includes last year's super-bomb The Island and the Woody Allen mega-stiff Scoop, and you have the makings of an Affleck-like streak. Still, every director worth his clapboard seems to want to cast the lovely Ms. Johansson in his next flick.

Woody Allen has put her in his last two films. Rain Man director Barry Levinson has cast her in his next film. She's in a comedy that's being prepared by the Weinstein brothers for release, and she's currently filming a period piece about King Henry VIII alongside Natalie Portman. Up next: The Prestige, set for release Oct. 20, which stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as warring magicians fighting over her in Edwardian London.


  That Scarlett Johansson can be both so sought after and, at least for now, so unlucky, says a lot about Hollywood, which is desperate to find the next hot thing. More or less discovered by Robert Redford, who put the 14-year-old Johansson in his film The Horse Whisperer in 1998, she's had exactly one hit to her credit: 2003's Lost in Translation, for which she received one of her four Golden Globe nominations.

Since then, the Scarlett Johansson marketing machine has been in overdrive. Her love life with Hartnett has gotten play in all the supermarket glossies, she's a spokeswoman for L'Oreal (LORLY), and she has just signed a deal to help design workout clothes for Reebok (RBK). And she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood edition au natural.

Hollywood badly wants to believe that Johansson has what it takes to bring both young women and warm-blooded guys to the theater. And Tinseltown needs her—or what it thinks she can offer. Box-office attendance, which was up briefly this summer compared to last summer, now seems back in its three-year-old funk.


  To directors, Scarlett Johansson represents a younger, cheaper alternative to aging stars such as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, says a top Hollywood publicist. "They figure she gets her name on magazine covers and maybe some of that magic will rub off on their films," he says. "Then they get the credit for putting her in the film that put her over the top and made her a bankable star."

A nice theory, but it hasn't happened yet. Part of the problem is simply finding a film that will work for her. So far, Hollywood has shoved her into every kind of role imaginable. The 21-year-old ingénue played a mid-30s, onetime hooker in The Black Dahlia and a teenager in In Good Company. Woody Allen decided she was a comedienne and foolishly put her in his screwball comedy Scoop as a ditzy, frumpy college student. Didn't exactly work.

Alas, it feels like déjà vu all over again, to quote the silver-tongued Yogi Berra. Like Affleck, Johansson is making so many films so quickly that they all seem to zip by in a blur. Affleck, who became a star with Good Will Hunting and Armageddon, went through his own series of losers. There was Gigli, Jersey Girl, and Paycheck in a period of eight months—and his career hasn't been the same since.


  When he gets a serious role, as TV Superman George Reeves in Hollywoodland, the audience no longer seems to want to see him—even though he is drawing rave reviews for his portrayal of the doomed star and won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

Maybe the critical accolades will do the trick for Ben and really revive his career. But regardless of what happens to Affleck, Scarlett and whoever chooses her material—her agents are at William Morris—would do well to pay heed to the cautionary tale. They should give their young client some time off from her celluloid whirlwind to catch her breath, find a decent role, and make good on all that promise. Maybe The Prestige—in which her publicist insists she has only a few minutes of screen time—will be a big enough hit to help restore hers.

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