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.

Read more: Fifty Shades Freed Is a Pleasure. Just Don’t Call It a Guilty One

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.”

Johnson, at 34, is now a good 10 years into that career. But most surveys of Johnson’s ascent to laid-back stardom fail to mention one of her earliest and most fascinating performances, one that predates the first Fifty Shades movie by a year. In Michael Almereyda’s inventive modern-day reimagining of Cymbeline, Johnson plays Imogen, the daughter of Cymbeline the king (Ed Harris), who, against her father’s wishes, has married the handsome swain Posthumus (Penn Badgley), a young man of humble birth and thus an unsuitable candidate for the throne; Cymbeline banishes him in anger. By thinking for herself, sunny yet sensible Imogen has upset a well-laid plan: Cymbeline’s much-younger wife, his queen (Milla Jovovich), had long been scheming to marry Imogen off to her pouty, devious son Cloten (Anton Yelchin, in one of his final performances), thus ensuring her bloodline’s longevity. She’s quietly furious that her plot has been foiled. Meanwhile, seemingly just for kicks, oily creep Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) places a bet with Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen and thus prove that her heart isn’t true.

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most underloved plays. Its plot is rather unwieldy, sometimes even a little kooky, though the tone is generally quite somber. But Almereyda—whose 2000 Hamlet, starring Hawke, is one of the most vibrant and imaginative Shakespeare adaptations of all time—emphasizes its tender spirit, and Johnson is his astute accomplice. Almereyda recasts Cymbeline’s court as a scrubby landscape dominated by a rowdy motorcycle gang; Badgley’s Posthumus comes and goes on a skateboard, a skinny dreamboat in droopy T-shirts. Imogen, separated from her love, keeps one of these shirts in her possession, inhaling its musk in a teenage swoon. But this is Imogen’s only indulgence in reverie. She’s a no-nonsense girl, ready for the test of will that’s coming her way, though she can’t yet see it.

In Cymbeline, Johnson doesn’t yet have movie-star teeth, that perfect row of choppers that aspiring actors so often invest in; her smile still has an unvarnished, youthful charm. As Imogen, she strides through much of the movie in cutoffs and well-worn Toms espadrilles, a young woman who’s so comfortable in her own skin that she can afford generosity to others without thinking—yet she knows when she’s being played, and her anger surfaces when warranted.

At a certain point, as so often happens in Shakespeare, Imogen disguises herself as a boy. This is also the point where Imogen must reckon with the possibility that her life will never be as she imagined it, and for a time, the light leaves her eyes. Thankfully, it has reason to return in the end. After everything has been set more-or-less right, she and Posthumus, reunited, zoom away from Cymbeline’s kingdom on a motorbike; they’re done with that place. Imogen is doing the driving, her husband’s arms clasped around her waist. She’s strong, and her heart is true—frankly, she’s a little too good for him, but they’ll make it work. And if her privileged upbringing has brought her certain advantages, she’s smart enough to know they can get her only so far. Whatever lies ahead, that bike is hers to steer.

The Power of Dakota Johnson

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