Scarlett Johansson was my first.
Not that I was a virgin. I’d interviewed big-shot people before. Never a movie star, though. Still, I knew how to behave in front of one. The basics, at least. Do not smile or exclaim or look excited or obey your instincts in any way, shape, or form. Just be cool.
I entered the Jewel Suite of the New York Palace hotel on Madison Avenue to catch the last hour of the Scarlett Johansson/Vanity Fair cover shoot on a Monday afternoon in late January. The Jewel Suite, in addition to being, as its name would suggest, a pretty ooh-la-la affair, was also an absolutely enormous one. And that day packed, crammed with photography people and wardrobe people and makeup people and magazine people and public-relations people, all of whom had assistants, and assistants to assistants, everybody in a heightened state of motion and commotion. And yet there was really only one person in the suite, and it was easy to sense where she was because she was the calm at the center of the frenzy, the still point around which so much activity hysterically spun.
here she stood, a hand on one slim, out-thrust hip, in the middle of a room that was mostly window. She wore open-toed gold mules and an off-the-shoulder gown of pleated pink silk and boobalicious cut—something Lana Turner might have chosen, or Marilyn Monroe—her face pouty-lipped and sultry-eyed, skin and hair as luminously white as the pearls dripping from her ears and wrists and fingers. In front of her, a man with a camera was on his knees, fixing her in his lens, snapping away insatiably. On either side of her and behind her, the buildings of Midtown surged up out of the ground and into the heavens in ecstatic phallic salute. As they should have. She looked ravishing, radiant, sublime, good enough to eat.
And as I joined the small throng that had gathered to watch, throwing subtle elbows to secure a better position, I realized that I was acting the opposite of cool, that I was acting totally and completely gaga. I realized, too, that Scarlett wasn’t just a movie star. She was a movie goddess, the purest strain of movie star. You know what I discovered happens when you’re around a movie goddess made up to suggest movie goddesses past in the throes of a cover shoot, i.e., a movie goddess at the ne plus ultra of her movie-goddess-dom? You become a man, even if you’re not one. You gawk. You gape. You leer. But then, you’re only doing what you’re supposed to do, what she intends you to do. She’s seducing the camera and thus, by extension, you, since you, again by extension, are on the other end of that camera. It’s sex between intimates and it’s sex between strangers. It’s sex in public and it’s sex in the mind. You can’t resist her and she knows it without ever acknowledging that she knows it. She treats the whole exchange, in fact, with a brisk nonchalance, neither shrinking from the attention she’s provoked nor making a big deal of it when it drops at her feet, just accepting it as it’s her due, her birthright, which is how she proves that it’s both.
For the interview, Scarlett and I move to a different suite. At least, I move. Scarlett, her people inform me, is running late. I check the batteries in my tape recorder, recheck the batteries, take an anxiety pee, and otherwise cool my heels. Time’s passed since the shoot, but my sexual-identity crisis has not. I still feel male and sleazy, though male and sleazy in a different way. Less like a lurking, peeping El Creepo from a James Ellroy novel, more like one of those sad-eyed old roués that Marcello Mastroianni used to play in movies that made Europe seem decadent and soul-sick and fun to visit. And why shouldn’t I feel Marcello Mastroianni-esque? I’m in a fancy hotel room, a bottle of wine chilling in an ice bucket, waiting for a lovely girl to arrive, hoping to get her to do something she’ll regret when she does. Not sex stuff, obviously. But I am hoping she’ll commit an indiscretion—tell me something she shouldn’t, something personal, something juicy, something that will make for primo copy.
At last, there’s a knock on the door. When I open it, I’m hit by my second realization of the day: in addition to being a movie star and object of desire and obsession and worship and fantasy, Scarlett Johansson is a human being. I’d gotten glimpses of this shocker of an alternate identity during the shoot. There was her manner with the crew—relaxed, funny, foulmouthed. And the ankle, wrist, and forearm tattoos, which let you know that though she was made up to resemble a bombshell from the 40s or 50s, and pulling off this look as few of her contemporaries could (her body, while small and slender, was also lush and curvy—no gym-bunny sinews on her), she was, too, a creature of her times, and subject to the fads and fashions of those times. And the way she would, when the camera’s eye was not on her, pump her fist to the music piped in through the sound system. At one point, she began to sing along. And as I listened, it occurred to me that an opportunity had been missed when she wasn’t cast as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. She has Daisy’s voice, a “husky, rhythmic whisper” that’s “full of money.” (Well, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, and Moët & Chandon, et al., didn’t choose her to endorse their class-act products because she seemed like she’d come cheap.) I’m straying off topic, though. My point is, the signs of personhood were there, but somehow I’d ignored them or dismissed them or shortchanged them, the glamour and starriness of the occasion overwhelming me, turning my brain and judgment to mush.
Scarlett’s undeniably in earthling guise now, though, hair scraped back into a ponytail, skin un-makeuped, in clothes that are the opposite of hubba–hubba—loose black pants and top, eyeglasses with dark frames. Don’t get me wrong. She’s still beautiful—a total knockout—but beautiful in the manner of a beautiful grad student, of someone who happens to be beautiful but has her mind on other things, rather than in the manner of a beautiful Hollywood starlet, of someone who is dressed-to-the-nines, glammed-to-the-max, is hot, hot, hot and in your face about it.
Scarlett politely yet firmly declines a glass of wine, which flusters me a bit. But then we start making small talk. We discuss the coldness of the suite (neither of us can find the thermostat), the weirdness of perfect strangers addressing you by your first name (me: “But isn’t it nice when they say nice stuff?” Scarlett: “No! Then you feel like an asshole for being taken aback!”), the grossness of social media (“All of it drives me crazy”), and the night before’s Grammy Awards show, and my theory that musicians are wilder than actors (Scarlett, who being both—remember that album of Tom Waits cover tunes, the Brigitte Bardot/Serge Gainsbourg-inspired duets she did with Pete Yorn?—and therefore ought to know, laughs and says, “That’s probably not true”). She behaves with me, basically, the same way she behaved with the photography crew. And I start to notch down, relax, because she seems so un-scary, so nice and normal. I hit the red button on the tape recorder.
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