All the Times Scarlett Johansson Didn't Shy Away From Controversy

Scarlett Johansson has earned two Oscar nominations this year, but her most important role has been that of an actress who is never anything less than exactly herself

By Natalie Finn, Jess Cohen Feb 05, 2020 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Scarlett Johansson Talks Real Life Inspiration Behind "Marriage Story"

We thought it had to be a mistake. Scarlett Johansson just got her... first Oscar nomination? Surely that wasn't the case!

But that was the case. And maybe the Academy is making up for lost time, because Johansson is nominated for two Oscars this year, Best Actress for Marriage Story and Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit.

The races for both seem fairly settled, but watching the Zellweger-Dern train rush by shouldn't make the night any less special for the veteran star, who has barely stopped working for a second since she first hit the scene as a child actress in the mid-1990s, then broke out in the indie darling Lost in Translation and generated her first round of Oscar buzz.

Through it all, while she's been acting in everything from indie darlings to Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing movie ever, and next her own Black Widow spin-off, Johansson has remained true to herself, not letting the constant churn of public opinion dictate what she does or what (or who) she supports.

2020 Oscars: First-Time Nominees

The actress is no stranger to backlash for her controversial-because-the-Internet-says-so comments on a variety of topics, but she continues to not buy into the idea that she should alter her opinions so they're more palatable for some tastes. 


"I'm not a politician, and I can't lie about the way I feel about things," Johansson told Vanity Fair last fall. "I don't have that. It's just not a part of my personality. I don't want to have to edit myself, or temper what I think or say. I can't live that way. It's just not me.

"And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it's going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that's kind of par for the course, I guess."

Scarlett Johansson's Oscar Looks

Compared to real crises out in the world, none of the things that Johansson has said seem all that shocking, but here are the controversies she has waded into, keeping her head above water every time:

Victor Bello/ Optimum Releasing

The Woody Allen Debate: In a September 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Johansson—who has been in three of Allen's films, Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona—was asked how she felt about the director in the wake of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow's renewed accusation that he sexually abused her when she was 7. Allen has vehemently denied the abuse claims.

"I love Woody," Johansson replied, reportedly after taking a pause. "I believe him, and I would work with him anytime."

"I see Woody whenever I can, and I have had a lot of conversations with him about it," she continued. "I have been very direct with him, and he's very direct with me. He maintains his innocence, and I believe him."

Johansson was asked how she felt about sharing this point of view on Allen at a time when the importance of believing women was front and center with the #MeToo movement.

"It's hard because it's a time where people are very fired up, and understandably," the actress replied. "Things needed to be stirred up, and so people have a lot of passion and a lot of strong feelings and are angry, and rightfully so. It's an intense time."

After the THR interview was published, Dylan fired back on Twitter, writing, "Because if we've learned anything from the past two years it's that you definitely should believe male predators who 'maintain their innocence' without question. Scarlett has a long way to go in understanding the issue she claims to champion."

Asked if the response to her take on Allen made her "think they had a point," Johansson told Vanity Fair, "I don't know—I feel the way I feel about it. It's my experience," she replied. "I don't know any more than any other person knows. I only have a close proximity with Woody...he's a friend of mine. But I have no other insight other than my relationship with him."

Scarlett Johansson's Best Roles

Geopolitical Problems: In 2014, Johansson starred in an ad campaign for SodaStream, the do-it-yourself carbonated beverage maker. Critics slammed her for working with an Israeli company that at the time was headquartered in the West Bank, territory that the United Nations upholds belongs to the Palestinians and is being illegally occupied by Israel. 

Johansson told Huffington Post in a statement that she "never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance as part of my affiliation with SodaStream," but had some thoughts on the matter.

"I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine," she further said. "SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma'ale Adumim factory every working day."

In January 2014, Johansson stepped down as an Oxfam ambassador after the anti-poverty nonprofit criticized her participation in the campaign as well. Her rep said that she "respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years. She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam."

SodaStream moved its factory to Lehavim, in southern Israel, in 2015. 

Paramount Pictures

Questionable Casting: It was more than manga fans who were incensed when Johansson played Major Motoko Kusanagi—a Japanese character in the wildly popular story franchise she originated from—in the 2017 sci-fi adventure Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders. She's referred to primarily as just "Major" in the film.

The opposition was loud from the moment the casting was announced, but the show went on, with Sanders telling CNET that Johansson was simply "the best actress of my generation and her generation, and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role." 

Mamoru Oshii, director of the animated Japanese-language Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995, also tried to bring the temperature down, telling IGN: "The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name 'Motoko Kusanagi' and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her."

Disney's Live-Action Casting Controversies

Oshii's take must have been the take the Sanders production went with.

Johansson told Marie Claire, "I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive."

On Good Morning America promoting the film, she said, "I think this character is living a very unique experience in that she has a human brain in an entirely machinate body. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously."

David Fisher/BAFTA/Shutterstock

Questionable Casting Part 2: Back in July 2018, it was announced that Johansson was set to portray Dante "Tex" Gill, a transgender man with mob ties who owned a massage parlor, in the based-on-a-true-story film Rub & Tug. Amid the backlash that yet another cisgender person had been cast as a trans character, Johansson's rep had initially told media outlets, referring to three actors who have played trans characters on TV and in film, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment."

However, Johansson did end up exiting the project.

"In hindsight, I mishandled that situation. I was not sensitive, my initial reaction to it," she told VF. "I wasn't totally aware of how the trans community felt about those three actors playing—and how they felt in general about cis actors playing—transgender people. I wasn't aware of that conversation—I was uneducated.

"So I learned a lot through that process. I misjudged that," she added. "It was a hard time. It was like a whirlwind. I felt terribly about it. To feel like you're kind of tone-deaf to something is not a good feeling."

Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Political Correctness and Casting: Last summer, Johansson told AS IF magazine that "acting goes through trends," and there were "certainly trends in casting right now."

She said, "Today there's a lot of emphasis and conversation about what acting is and who we want to see represent ourselves on screen. The question now is, what is acting anyway?"

She also talked about the roles people get to play, stating, "You know, as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of the job."

Artist David Salle, who was conducting the interview, asked Johansson, "Must you only represent yourself, your gender, your ethnicity, or can you, in fact, play beyond these categories?"

"There are a lot of social lines being drawn now," she replied, "and a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art."

Johansson continued, "You know, I feel like it's a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions."

L Horricks/20thCenturyFox/Kobal/Shutterstock

That didn't go over great.

In response to negative feedback, Johansson issued a statement to clarify her remarks.

"An interview that was recently published has been edited for click bait and is widely taken out of context," read the statement released by her rep in July. "The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art. I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn't come across that way.

"I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cisgendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to," the statement continued. "I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included."

Watch the Oscars live on CTV Sunday, February 9 at 8/6MT!

(Originally published Nov. 26, 2019, at 12:19 p.m. PT)

Latest News