Never Underestimate the Power of Dakota Johnson

In the run-up to the Sony-produced Spider-Man spinoff Madame Web, the movie’s star, Dakota Johnson, endeared herself to everyone who loves to see a celebrity veer off-script. In Entertainment Weekly she articulated the absurdity of trying to give a real performance against the fake reality of a blue screen. In L’Officiel she decried the greed and stupidity of streaming executives “who don’t trust creative people or artists to know what’s going to work.” And on the Today show, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, who’s now nearly as famous as her parents ever were, called journalists’ obsession with her lineage “annoying and boring.” Lots of people have greeted Johnson’s joyously unfiltered ripostes, and her impatience with alleged journalists who fixate on dumb stuff, as a pleasant surprise. But to anyone who’s been paying attention, Johnson’s intelligence, her Sahara-dry sense of humor, her commitment to the vast possibilities of movies have been front and center all along: in her performances.

It wasn’t so long ago that Johnson’s role as Anastasia Steele, the sexual naif-turned-empowered adventuress of the three Fifty Shades movies, made her the object of derision among people who like to think they know what they’re talking about. The fact that these pictures made heaps of money—and did well with audiences of women, in particular—only intensified the sense among critics, and others who should have known better, that they were “bad” movies, corny, porny, and not worth taking seriously.

But anyone who wrote these pictures off as mere junk wasn’t paying close attention to what Johnson was doing. In the first picture, 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia is a recent college grad drawn into a kinky relationship with a slightly older Seattle billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (the handsome but sadly boring Jamie Dornan). Johnson plays the younger Anastasia as a nymphet fresh from the lily pad, a coy novice who has no sense of her own sexual power. But even at this point Johnson vests Anastasia with a flirty knowingness, an intuitive sense of the person she’s on her way to becoming. By the third movie, Fifty Shades Freed, Johnson’s Anastasia fully grasps a truth that’s been glimmering in her subconscious all along: that Grey’s need for control is weakness, not strength.

Johnson’s semi-nude scenes in the third picture have a feral elegance. But if she takes Anastasia seriously, she maintains a sense of humor about herself, as if she’s fully aware that audiences might be laughing at the over-the-top ridiculousness of some of these sexual scenarios (the movies’ accouterments include lots of red velvet drapery and an assortment of rather harmless-looking riding crops and restraints) but just doesn’t care. She’s there for the showmanship of it all, knowing that movies are delivery systems for all sorts of delights that defy what we commonly call good taste. She has the cool allure of her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, and the flirty, mischievous spirit of her mother. If this is what nepotism gets you, maybe we need more of it.

And in a relatively short career, Johnson hasn’t always made easy or predictable choices. She’s made two films with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino: In A Bigger Splash (2016), she gave a sly, purring performance as a teenager on holiday on an Italian island—her Penelope is big trouble in a tiny triangle top. And if the 2018 Suspiria was a dumb reimagining of a great movie—Dario Argento’s 1977 masterstroke of the same name—Johnson, as an aspiring dancer who lands at a weird Berlin dance school run by witches, keeps her cool throughout. And in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, she gives a marvelous performance as a young mother who’s also a slinky manipulator, a woman who doesn’t seem to have been softened by motherhood at all.

Even in a clumsy mainstream movie like Madame Web—which offers a backstory for the blind, paralyzed sage Cassandra Webb, a supporting Spiderverse character—she commits to her character in the breeziest way possible. As Cassie, a paramedic and ace ambulance driver who emerges from a freak accident with weird powers, there’s a sauntering casualness about her, as if she could give it all up tomorrow—even though, as Johnson said in that recent Today show appearance, she has long dreamt of having this career. “I’m still dreaming, I’m still in awe. I love my job so much, I want to do it forever.”

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