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How Will Dakota Johnson Survive Madame Web? The Same Way She Handled Fifty Shades of Grey

Dakota Johnson has a new movie coming out, but that’s not why anyone is paying attention to her lately. “Madame Web” opens tomorrow, but little about the film looks promising. For one thing, comic-book movie fatigue is real, which is even truer when a studio presents audiences with a superhero most of them have never heard of. (Johnson plays Cassie Web, a clairvoyant Manhattan paramedic who will team up with some Spider-Women.) The buzz has been bad, and the first trailer was so underwhelming that it prompted some commentators to cheekily suggest it was meant to be inept. Sony may have a major flop on its hands, but I don’t think Johnson has to worry: She’s winning a battle that’s much more important, which is in the court of public opinion.

Rather remarkably, Johnson has shifted the conversation away from this potential bomb and toward her enjoyably chaotic press tour. Over the last few weeks, she’s been providing steady doses of sarcastic, irreverent humor while making the rounds promoting the movie. No matter the appearance, the routine is usually the same: The 34-year-old star has to endure some unspeakably inane junket or chat show, and she gleefully blows everything up by not really playing along. On “Live with Kelly and Michael,” she couldn’t even pretend to be chipper when Kelly Ripa asked if she’s successful enough that she doesn’t have to audition for roles anymore, shooting the co-host a wonderfully withering glance. When Johnson hung out with Seth Meyers, she told a story about how much she hated doing a guest spot on the series finale of her favorite show, “The Office.” (“That was honestly the worst time of my life. … [I thought] I’d show up for like half a day. I was there for two weeks. And I’m barely in the f*cking show.”) Want to engage her in how the dumbest line in the “Madame Web” trailer has become a meme? She’ll shoot you down on camera. Interested in being the umpteenth journalist to engage her in conversation about being a nepo baby? (She’s the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.) Johnson isn’t having it.

Because Johnson is the child of famous people, it’s natural for cynics to assume that she’s spoiled or sheltered — a beautiful face with no substance underneath. These low expectations are part of the reason why she’s so beloved on social media, where she’s been adoringly memed for years. Other young stars are poised and polished to the point of dullness — so earnest, so afraid to ever say the wrong thing — but Johnson radiates a liberatingly cutting DGAF energy. In fact, she harks back to a bygone pre-internet era in which the industry’s biggest names, like Bette Davis or Elizabeth Taylor, would be happily acerbic on talk shows, unafraid to reveal themselves warts and all. It didn’t make us love them less — it only intensified our ardor. (Want proof? Check out how often an old Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson clip goes viral.) Johnson may hail from a privileged Hollywood background, but she seems determined to be a regular human being who finds a lot of the trappings of celebrity ridiculous. She is not like you or me at all, but arguably her greatest performance to date has been creating the illusion that, just maybe, she is.

None of her down-to-earth candor should be a surprise. When Johnson was first becoming an A-lister, she showed exactly how she would differentiate herself from other starlets. Some might have been capsized by appearing in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, one of the silliest moneymakers this century. But if anything, her performance in the trilogy made us like her even more. Want to know how she’ll survive “Madame Web”? Observe how she elevated those absurd romantic dramas into something worth watching. 

When Johnson was cast as Anastasia Steele, the demure English literature major in E.L. James’ wildly popular, deeply hokey romance novel, she had been in movies, but they were small parts, although her one-scene role in “The Social Network,” opposite Justin Timberlake, hinted at her natural charisma and tart sense of humor. Still, when news outlets reported that Johnson would be part of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” they tended to identify her by mentioning her parents Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, or by citing the fact that she was a former Miss Golden Globes, which goes to a child of Hollywood big shots. In other words, her biggest distinction was her genes, not her résumé. 

Few critics held out hope that the film adaptation would be worthwhile. The overheated plot involved innocent Anastasia falling under the sway of the rich, tormented Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who wants to make her his latest sexual plaything. Framing this kinky courtship as a battle between love and lust, James’ novel was rightly dismissed as risible softcore smut, and most reviewers laughed their way through the 2015 film. But while I found the movie significantly cheesy, I came away enjoying the playfully “naughty” sex scenes and Johnson’s wised-up performance. Anastasia may be sweet and shy, but what animated the first movie was the character’s growing understanding that, for all his wealth and penchant for BDSM, Christian was actually something of a chump. And she savored pushing his buttons.

As a result, “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” sex wasn’t nearly as stimulating as watching Johnson slyly slice and dice her costar, who came across as wooden and humorless. Dornan, God bless him, has redeemed himself in subsequent roles like the current Netflix hit "The Tourist," but he strained to treat this gooey escapism like serious drama. Johnson did no such thing, practically raising an eyebrow at the material’s faux gravitas. Although never winking at the camera, she nonetheless communicated to the audience that James’ book wasn’t great art — it was fun trash — and over three films, continuing with “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” she simultaneously made sure Anastasia kept Christian on his toes and signaled to all of us watching that it was okay to relish the salacious spectacle.

To be sure, none of the films in the trilogy are good — the sequels get progressively worse — but Johnson was delightful company, engaging fully in the slightly hot shenanigans while sporting a slyly mocking sense of humor about the whole thing. It was hard to like those movies, but it was very easy to like her, in large part because of how the franchise positioned Anastasia as an innocent woman seduced by this dark, dashing stud with a sex dungeon. Johnson recognized that such a fantasy, which had attracted so many readers, was ludicrous but also deeply pleasurable — she managed to play along with the fairytale while also methodically dismantling it. Along the way, Dornan became her unwitting straight man and comedic punching bag. Christian might be loaded, but he wasn’t nearly as cool as Anastasia. There was a lot of skin revealed in those movies, but only Johnson showed a bit of wit.

Despite the brutal reviews, the “Fifty Shades” series went on to gross $1.3 billion, making Johnson a leading lady. She parlayed that into starring roles in superb arthouse fare, teaming up with interesting auteurs such as Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash” and “Suspira”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”). Even when the film itself was mediocre, like her twin 2022 Sundance pictures “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and “Am I OK?,” she brought something disarming and vulnerable to the proceedings. (If you're wondering why you haven't heard of the latter, it's because WB has buried it, in keeping with their recent habit of drastic cost-cutting measures.)

As an actor, there’s no question Johnson has major chops — she has an effortless ability to project openness and immediacy — but the truth is, none of those later films have had nearly the reach of “Fifty Shades.” And so, what has kept her most in the limelight in recent years has been the memes that have sprung up in response to her public appearances. 

Her two most famous viral moments don’t need much introduction, but for those who have forgotten: In 2019, she went on “Ellen” and refused to put up with Ellen DeGeneres’ passive-aggressive ribbing about not being invited to Johnson’s birthday party. Johnson’s immortal response — “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen” — set the stage for an epically awkward talk-show appearance, which earned the admiration of many, especially those who love when celebrities cut through the fake chumminess and those who were tired of DeGeneres’ then-glowing reputation as the Queen of Nice. (Later, when reports of DeGeneres’ dysfunctional workplace first started making the rounds, Johnson’s face-off with the host resurfaced, held up as proof that the actress had known DeGeneres was a phony long ago.)

The appearance helped burnish Johnson’s bona fides as a Hollywood actress who was keeping it real, a reputation that only grew a little more than a year later. In early 2020, when everyone was still adjusting to the lockdown, Architectural Digest featured her in one of its glossy “home tour” videos, in which celebrities allow a camera crew into their immaculately clean, enviably gorgeous house. Johnson first made news by enthusiastically declaring in the video how much she adores limes. (“I love limes. I love them. They’re great. I love them so much, and I like to present them like this in my house.”) But after captivating the world with her wholesome admission, she later confessed on The Tonight Show that the whole thing was a ruse: “I was giving the tour and went into the kitchen, and it was set dressing,” she told Jimmy Fallon, adding, “I’m allergic to limes. … Limes make my tongue itch.” 

By owning up to her lie, she only further endeared herself to the masses, puncturing the myth of the perfect celebrity life with the perfect house. Videos like that Architectural Digest piece were manufactured PR nonsense, but only Johnson was willing to call it out as such.

Johnson has expressed bewilderment about the popularity of her memes. “I’m not aware of them,” she said in 2022. “I don’t know these things happen, and then, like, a year later, somebody is asking me about it. … The other day, Spike Jonze sent me a picture of a woman who works with him wearing a T-shirt of something I said with a drawing of me on it. I was like, ‘What?!’” 

But in an age of social media, a relatively new star like Johnson, who doesn’t publicly use any such apps, is arguably more known for the viral bits that bounce around TikTok and Twitter/X than for her gutsy work in something like “Suspiria.” Fans’ relentless desire to amplify and recontextualize celebrity sound bites can leave some stars feeling anxious, scaring them into spouting the most banal, cheery comments in interviews so as not to risk offending anyone or getting mocked online for a verbal faux pas. Nowadays, actors sound like politicians, repeating the pertinent talking points and staying on message.

But not unlike Jennifer Lawrence before her, Dakota Johnson can’t be bothered with such boring niceties. As Lawrence was getting increasingly more famous, she got more unrehearsed in interviews, gleefully playing up her uncool side and embracing the messiness of being a young person negotiating stardom. Johnson is the same way, joking with Seth Meyers that she was being so honest because she’d had a glass of champagne before coming on stage. (Then again, maybe she wasn’t kidding?) Talking about “Madame Web” to Entertainment Weekly, she admitted, “I’ve never really done a movie where you are on a blue screen, and there’s fake explosions going off, and someone’s going, ‘Explosion!’ and you act like there’s an explosion. That to me was absolutely psychotic. I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be good at all! I hope that I did an okay job!’” 

Not surprisingly, the internet seized on the “I don’t know if this is going to be good at all!” part, holding it up as more proof that Johnson is more authentic than other stars selling their shoddy blockbuster wares. (She’s been equally candid about the franchise that made her name, dishing to Vanity Fair in 2022 about all the on-set “Fifty Shades” drama: “The night before, I would rewrite scenes. … It was like mayhem all the time. … If I had known at the time that’s what it was going to be like, I don’t think anyone would’ve done [those movies]. It would’ve been like, ‘Oh, this is psychotic.’”)

As of this writing, I haven’t yet seen “Madame Web,” but early indications are that it’s going to be bad. At least the “Fifty Shades” movies made a lot of money, whereas this Marvel film seems destined for the same fate as recent superhero duds like “The Marvels.” If that happens, it’ll be a professional disappointment for Johnson — this is her biggest studio film since she played Anastasia — but I don’t think she’ll be dinged too terribly. For one thing, she’s too talented. But perhaps more importantly, her appeal transcends her films. 

Part of why her fans love her may be that she subverts the assumptions they might have about someone like her. She looks like a movie star, but she doesn’t behave like a sanitized movie star — instead, she’s foul-mouthed and unapologetic. She takes her work seriously but seems utterly blasé about how she’s perceived. Where other celebrities are self-conscious, she shoots her mouth off. In Hollywood, where everything feels pre-processed and carefully constructed, she seems to be having a blast saying whatever she wants.

“Considering who her parents are, you project an idea of somebody coming from that amount of privilege,” Richard E. Grant, who starred with her in the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” said in that same 2022 Vanity Fair profile. “You think that she might be — how do I put this? — that there might be a Paris Hilton element to her character. But there wasn’t. Instead, I think what that background has given her is a great assurance of who she is. I mean, she’s 32, but she has a no-shit-Sherlock approach. And having seen her on that infamous Ellen DeGeneres interview, you know that she takes no prisoners. You don’t mess with Dakota Johnson, and I think that’s incredibly sexy.” 

It’s also incredibly refreshing. Some may only know Dakota Johnson from her memes, but they’re a clue into the fine actress she seems on her way to becoming. “Madame Web” will probably be a blight on her filmography, but as we learned from “Fifty Shades,” she refuses to be tied down for long — either by Christian or by the world’s expectations. 

 

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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