Just like buses, you wait for one Zelda Fitzgerald biopic and then two come along at once. We haven't had such a momentous clash since Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were both released in the same year! Having just reported that Jennifer Lawrence was attached to star in Ron Howard's biopic Zelda, news has broken that Scarlett Johansson is attached to play the literary dame too, in The Beautiful And The Damned, based on Hanna Weg's script.
The title is a riff on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful And Damned, based upon his turbulent relationship with Zelda, and it seems to have one up on Lawrence's film in that the filmmakers have exclusive rights to the Fitzgerald estate, meaning that previously unpublished material written by Zelda in the sanatorium is now going to be available for use in the script. Whether you consider Zelda's Ron Howard — the safest pair of hands in Hollywood — an advantage is really a matter of taste.
But enough on the production values. Let's look at the two actresses and decide right here, right now, who is truly worthy of taking on the role of the first ever flapper, with a scientifically accurate head to head.
Round One: Number Of Little Gold Statuettes
Maybe the proof is in those little gold guys. If we decide to look at their achievements just in terms of cold treasure, whether they are Golden Globes or from the Academy, there is one clear winner here. Scarlett may have four Golden Globe nominations (Match Point, A Love Song For Bobby Long, Lost In Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring) but Jennifer Lawrence has four Oscar nominations, being nominated for Winter's Bone at the mere age of 20 years, before winning at 22 for her role in Silver Lining's Playbook.
She also has been nominated for four Golden Globes, winning three. For Lawrence, she is such a position that every time she acts in a non-franchise film there is talk that she might be up for an Oscar. Watch what happens after Passengers finally drops. Scarlett, by comparison, has been overlooked even in the Golden Globes ever since 2004.
Winner: Jennifer Lawrence
Round Two: Star Power
What is star power? Star power is an actor's ability to individually transform a film or a scene. It is the ability to sell a mood on physical presence alone. It is a gift few have, but Lawrence and Johansson do.
Scarlett Johansson is endlessly fascinating, either in her genre pictures or her more indie fare, her characters almost always emitting a quizzical expression that burrows deep into your mind. Her gaze becomes your gaze, her despair your despair, her love your love.
Lawrence on the other hand, is all steely determination and fury. Her face is less raised eyebrows then pursed lips. Summing up her desire to work hard and get things done can be summed up by something as simple as putting sunglasses on:
Two different styles, both mesmerising actresses. Yet ultimately you can compare their star power by breaking down some of their best scenes. Here I shall compare Jennifer Lawrence outclassing De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook versus the ending of Lost In Translation. Let's look at Lawrence first:
The key to this scene is context. De Niro is chewing the scenery in a way no one had seen in years. The family is in chaos. When Lawrence turns up, you wonder just how she can win the argument. Yet confidently, with a quiet rage, she lists the reasons why she isn't the reason why the Eagles lost, finally building up to a brilliant crescendo involving the New York State motto. It's a show-stopping scene in a film full of them. Yet she doesn't end it there, opening a bottle of beer and taking a victorious swig, almost saying to the audience, just give me the Oscar already.
As De Niro says:
"I got to say I'm impressed"
Against nearly any other actress Lawrence would win, but Scarlett has got an ace up her sleeve, ostensibly one of the greatest scenes of all time, and absolutely in my top ten: the ending to Lost In Translation, a scene so gloriously beautiful that if it doesn't make you cry then you have no soul:
Like Lawrence, this scene's power works by going up against a much-older legend and easily easily holding her own. The whole film has been a slow-burn towards this scene, when Murray's character finally comes to say goodbye. The cinematography and the choice of music is perfect, yet they are equally matched by Scarlett's devastating half-smile here;
And half-tearing up here;
The way that she can project both sadness and gratitude in one look is testament to her precise brilliance as an actress. She doesn't say much —only a brief "bye" — yet her presence completely sells it. One of the finest films ever made about human connection, Scarlett Johansson seems to be the only person suitable for the role. That is the sign of a star. Scarlett emerges the clear winner here.
Winner: Scarlett Johansson.
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Round Three: Suitability For Role
So, Scarlett is more of a 'movie star' when comparing her greatest scene to Lawrence's greatest scene, yet Lawrence is by far the bigger darling of the Academy. Both of their box office returns are absurdly good, especially when thinking about their franchise films, but a biopic concerning Zelda Fitzgerald is definitely more angled towards garnering support through critical rather than commercial success.
Thus its time to get more technical and see whether each actress is actually suited towards the role itself. Who was Zelda Fitzgerald? A conflicted, brilliant woman, possibly schizophrenic, who wanted to shine but was treated horribly by her husband. She wanted to be a ballerina and a novelist but was discouraged on both counts by F Scott Fitzgerald, who then later plagiarised her diaries for his own novels. Complex to say the least: a role needing both a star, and a consummate actress.
The best way to do this is to look at precedents. Scarlett Johansson has shown that she can expertly look the part in previous eras in both Hail Caesar! and Hitchcock. It would be no stretch of the imagination imagining she would look fabulous as a flapper too.
Yet in terms of playing women with mental health issues — where her strengths are existential musings (Lost In Translation), unwanted superpowers (Lucy), boredom (Ghost World) and tragic self-awareness (Her) — she pales in comparison compared to Jennifer Lawrence's nuanced Oscar-winning turn as someone with bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook, a girl suffering from loss who still resolves to find her father in Winter's Bone, or a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in American Hustle.
For the tiny, incremental and hard-to-pin-point gestures and actions, speech patterns and facial expressions, expertly summing up a woman who is clearly struggling under a patriarchal system, Lawrence definitely edges it here.
Winner: Jennifer Lawrence
Both actresses are critically acclaimed star-magnets with multi-billion dollar takings at the box office, but ultimately I'm going to have to go with Jennifer Lawrence, even if I think Scarlett Johansson is the bigger movie star. If this was a simpler, more iconic character from the age — to use a fictional example, Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, who is held up in the novel as an ideal— Scarlett Johansson would suit. The same for a more dreamy or existentially lost type like in Lost In Translation. Yet for the more nitty gritty details of real-life mental health issues, Lawrence easily bests her in fully fleshing those nuances out. Thankfully for us, we shall be able to judge the better depiction when both films are out. I can't wait!