Thursday, October 4, 2018

Stars I Love: Dakota Johnson

Dakota-Johnson Nino-Muñoz Glamour UK March-2017
At first glance, Dakota Johnson has become recognizable as the face of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the granddaughter to Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren and daughter to Melanie Griffith. Though these are easy facts to Google about her skyrocket to stardom over the past few years, Johnson has managed to take Hollywood by storm on her own terms that defies expectations.

Despite her direct connection to Tinseltown through her family, Johnson got her start in movies and tv like other break-out stars. Working her way up the ladder, she posed in Got Milk? commercials as a child alongside her mother and siblings to later becoming an awards presenter at the Golden Globes. After failing to get into Juliard with a Radiohead-inspired audition, she started earning small parts in movies. From the Academy-Award nominated The Social Network to rom-coms like Date and Switch and The Five Year Engagement (she even had a stint on The Office in its eleventh hour), she created a small variety of characters that showed off her comedic and dramatic side.

And then came the role of a lifetime....
In 2015, she was cast as Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, a book series so critically panned for butchering coherent storytelling and grammatical syntax, one would think it'd be impossible to adapt. And yet with director Sam-Taylor Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marvel attached to the first film, Universal Pictures found a way to transition it onto the big screen. As the trilogy was developed, the negative legacy of the books unfortunately continued with its movies. However, its leading lady was considered to be the franchise's savor.

Centered on a young virginal woman who falls in love with a red-flag-room dominatrix-asshole and millionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the erotic thriller written by E.L. James was instantly chalked up around the world as a misrepresentation of BDSM, normalizing abusive relationships, and parodied (unfairly in my opinion) as mommy porn. And yet I found myself in the midst of its fandom when the film franchise began. My interest for the books and films peaked because of complete boredom while putting myself through college and a familiarity with Dornan on television shows like The Fall and Once Upon A Time. Johnson was a revelation to me in the first film, and she's what I ended up staying for.

On the page, Steele is a mess of a character. Her decisions and emotions are harangued by forty goddesses and a thousand sub-consciousnesses, it's hard to take her seriously. Yet, on the screen, Johnson made Steele dynamic, charming, awkward, curious, strong-willed, and sensitive; someone with an actual personality. As much as the film reads as horrible fanfiction, she didn't treat Ana as a parody but as a real character with an arc to navigate. Despite making billions at the box office and pleasing many of its fans, Johnson survived a trilogy that didn't seem plausible from the get-go: the falling out between Taylor-Johnson and Marcel with E.L. James, a change in director and writer, awkward press tours, an off-screen friendship with Dornan that couldn't translate on-screen, and spending far too much time in the films naked compared to her co-star. From her character's costume design that takes her from bookworm to confident businesswoman to Johnson taking the story more seriously than the critics who hated on it, she made the odds work in her favor.

One part of Dakota's career will be remembered by Fifty Shades of Grey, yet during the release of her biggest hit so far, she actually had five other movies come out in 2015: Cymbeline, Chloe and Theo, Black Mass, A Bigger Splash, and In a Relationship as well as two short films Willa and Vale. Of course these films were too indie to eclipse an industry monster like Fifty, but where the latter would've broken a woman's career some-odd years ago, Johnson's has taken off.

For a series that earned billions at the box office but gained so much negative traction, it's an anomaly her career is still on track, whereas ten to twenty years ago Hollywood might not have been so kind. While filming the Fifty Shades trilogy, she continued to challenge herself to make the movies she wanted to and step outside of the box as Lindsey Cyr in Black Mass, Alice Kepley in How To Be Single, and finding longtime collaborators like director Luca Guadagnino for A Bigger Splash. Even after the trilogy ended in 2018, it's proven to be lucrative for her to tell stories she wants to tell.

Off-screen, I can watch her interviews all day, as each one shows off her shy, eccentric personality, and natural instincts that help her shine as an actress. Her appearances on Jimmy Fallon are some of my favorites. Parodying Fifty Shades with MadLibsAnything Can Be Sexy, or eavesdropping on other accents for roles, her quirky talents can prove why the success she's made for herself matters. And then there's doing tequila shots with Stephen Colbert or her experiences with skunks and sneaking photos of the Stranger Things' kids at the Golden Globes. Though Fifty Shades has garnered plenty of haters, there's no doubting that she's likable off-screen and far from the characters she plays.

Despite the massive attention she's achieved so far, Johnson's bypassed gossip columns to just keep working. The success she has found transcends the fact that most will identify her first as the girl from Fifty Shades or as Hollywood royalty. As a fangirl who usually backs underdogs, I remember once telling my family Dakota would get nominated some day, just like I did for another personal favorite Matthew McConnaughey. We all know how that went. By the looks of it for the 2019 award show season, she could be on her way. Though she hasn't come in contact with widespread hate or backlash as other actresses have, its refreshing that as she grows, she might end up proving the series's haters wrong.

5 Favorite Roles


In the 2018 remake of Suspiria, Dakota takes over the role of an American ballet dancer who travels to Berlin for dance training. But students start to go missing, and the few that remain claim there's something more sinister going on with their teacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Destined for greatness, Johnson goes toe-to-toe with Swinton as her powers and connection to the company's covenant hooks their spells into her; the humble Susie transforms into a force to be reckoned with, and so does Johnson.

Black Mass

Black Mass is a tedious biopic about the infamous American mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, but it's one of the better performances lately in Johnny Depp's career that doesn't make you groan because he's acting all Johnny Deppish method. Though her role is small and plays into the typical innocent wife and son caught in the mob's crossfire, Dakota works well off of Depp for as little screentime her character has.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Honestly, God bless the women behind the first film. It's a shame that the franchise wallowed in showing off Johnson's boobs more than actually help the complicated couple's relationship make sense. But again, she makes Ana far more likable than she is in the books. Despite the story's weaknesses, there are other things going on for the film like the luxurious production design and killer soundtrack.

Ben and Kate 

Dakota stars as Kate, a mother and bar owner who has put childish notions behind her and tries to live by her own strict rules. That all changes when her spontaneous brother Ben shows up out of nowhere and sticks around to help raise her daughter. Ben and Kate was a small series on Fox that was cut off before its prime, but offered enough episodes for Dakota to show just how funny she truly is. In smaller tv communities, it put her on the map and is often the first role critics reference as helping her show what she's capable of before Fifty Shades.

A Bigger Splash

Probably one of the most luscious and slow-burning movies of her filmography, a rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts)'s paradise is interrupted by the unpredictable reunion of a brash, spontaneous ex-lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his mysterious daughter (Dakota Johnson. Like father, like daughter, the duo pushes the limits of their staycation as Harry questions Lane's love for Paul and Penelope tries to tempt Paul with her wiles. What starts out as a performance of the bored teenager following her dad across the world morphs into hidden jealousy and contempt, where she'll do anything to get a rise out of everyone around her. Penelope becomes a little bit of everything, mixing girlhood with womanhood, and it's interesting to Dakota blur the lines between the two.

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