Johnny Depp did it for years. James Franco can't stop. Now Scarlett Johansson is trying her luck. Why do A-listers make art films, and must we be forced to watch?
As problems go, it’s a pretty First World one to be saddled with. You’re a movie star pocketing obscene paychecks to appear in Hollywood blockbusters. But something is missing. Fame and box office success alone aren’t why you started making movies. You are an actor. If only your fans could see just how cool and fearless and devoted to the craft you really are. What to do? Worry not. There’s a well-trod path laid out that will put this plight behind you once and for all: You will make a boldly uncommercial art film. The weirder, the better.
The tradition of megawatt stars defiantly letting their freak flags fly in oddball indies is a long and proud one. Each actor comes to it with his or her own set of reasons. Sometimes it’s to show a hint of hidden hipster cred no one suspected you had. And sometimes…well, sometimes you’re Nicole Kidman and you just want to pee on Zac Efron (The Paperboy). If there’s a patron saint of the stardom-subverting subgenre, it’s Johnny Depp. Or at least it used to be. Before he was beckoned by the siren song of Jack Sparrow sequels, Depp tried everything in his power to dodge bankability: Arizona Dream, Dead Man, The Libertine. Still, the most confounding example is 1997’s The Brave. Made right after Donnie Brasco won him the best reviews of his career, Depp directed and starred in this barely seen downer about a desperate Native American who acts in a snuff film. It says something that Marlon Brando is the least bizarre thing in it.
The impulse to run away from fame rather than cozy up to its 500-thread-count embrace can be a strong one, as Kate Winslet proved post-Titanic. Few lined up for the obscure one-two punch of Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke. But you didn’t have to see either to understand that Winslet is someone for whom ticket receipts and celebrity matter little. The same goes for Matt Damon, who abruptly shifted gears after 2001’s ring-a-ding smash Ocean’s Eleven by starring in Gus Van Sant’s nearly silent celluloid ramble Gerry. It wasn’t a good film, but it was hard to question the actor’s beyond-the-fringe bona fides afterward.
A step above that lies the rarefied plateau of Christian Bale, whose A-list-versus-artist struggle seems like an almost existential wrestling match. Every time he fattens up or wastes away for a role (as in 2004’s The Machinist), he seems to be doing hair-shirt penance for the sin of being a movie star. And James Franco…let’s just concede that he exists on his own gonzo planet. Each project he takes (Spring Breakers, Interior. Leather Bar.) is more puzzling than the last, so that when he does appear in a mainstream film such as Oz the Great and Powerful, it feels like a giant put-on.
Scarlett Johansson doesn’t go quite that far in her latest film — the inscrutable sci-fi brainteaser Under the Skin — but she comes damn close. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Birth), the movie is an avant-garde experiment that throws narrative storytelling out the window in favor of mood, mystery, and monotony. It makes The Man Who Fell to Earth look like E.T. Johansson, outfitted in a black wig, blood-red lipstick, and often nothing else, is an alien who drives around Scotland trawling for male hitchhikers to lure back to her surreal black-widow dream chamber, where her victims are submerged in inky liquid and have their flesh sucked out of them. Why? It may have something to do with a mission from her home planet. Honestly, who the hell knows? As a film, Under the Skin is hauntingly freaky and ultimately frustrating. But as a movie star’s gamble to be seen as more than just a moneymaking member of the Marvel universe, it’s a home run.