Fifty Shades of Grey was never a critics’ movie.
Predictably, reviewers have taken Christian Grey-like pleasure in dishing out verbal whippings.
But while male star Jamie Dornan has been panned for his stodgy, stiff performance, people are raving about his co-star, Dakota Johnson.
Variety praised her “very appealing combo of little-girl-lost naivete and gradually deepening assertiveness”, while The Hollywood Reporter called her performance “captivating … With a loose-limbed naturalness, she conveys naiveté, intellectual curiosity and romantic yearning…”
Adds The Guardian, “Johnson’s Ana squeezes believability out of one of the more silly romantic entanglements in recent popular culture. It’s all there in her face, which [director Sam] Taylor-Johnson frames in close-up.”
A sexy movie role can be the kiss of death for a starlet’s career, as Elizabeth Berkeley discovered after starring in notorious flop Showgirls, and Natasha Henstridge in Species.
Other actresses, like Sharon Stone and Linda Fiorentino, have found themselves typecast as femmes fatales.
But the fact that Johnson could create sparkling comedy from a humourless bondage potboiler shouldn’t be a surprise. While Fifty Shades is her breakout film, she’s Hollywood royalty.
Dakota’s mother, Melanie Griffith, was just 14 in 1973, when she met Dakota’s father, 22-year-old Don Johnson, on the set of The Harrad Experiment, a film about a groovy school that taught free love. Don played a student; Melanie’s mum, The Birds and Marnie star Tippi Hedren, was the principal’s wife.
Melanie and Don were briefly married in 1976; they drifted apart before reconciling in the late 1980s as stars: Don in TV’s Miami Vice, and Melanie with starring roles in Brian De Palma’s sexy Hitchcock homage Body Double, and Mike Nichols’ charming Working Girl.
Dakota was born in October 1989. Her parents split – this time, for good – in 1996. But she remembers a happy, “normal” childhood spent around her parents’ film sets, along with her four younger half-siblings from their subsequent remarriages.
“I just assumed that what I would be doing is making films,” she said in a January interview with Vogue.
“And being on a film set is the most comforting thing in the world to me. Seeing a catering truck feels like home.”
Turning to acting in 2008, Johnson’s first role got her noticed. In a pivotal scene in 2010’s The Social Network, she’s the wholesome college coed who introduces Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) to a cool new social networking website.
Watching the scene now, Johnson’s relaxed charm stands out. She’s at ease with the pace of Aaron Sorkin’s screwball dialogue.
“She was a bit of a scene-stealer,” her Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson told Vogue. “It was one of those little appearances where you think, I need more of that girl!”
Her gift for comedy also enlivens Nicholas Stoller’s 2012 romcom The Five Year Engagement, in which she co-stars as Audrey, the sexy, flighty younger woman whom Tom (Jason Segel) starts dating after breaking up with Violet (Emily Blunt).
The same year, Johnson landed her first leading role, in the Fox sitcom Ben and Kate. She played shy single mum Kate, whose exuberant older brother Ben (Nat Faxon) moves in to help raise her six-year-old daughter. Predictably, Ben’s wacky schemes complicate Kate’s attempt to lead a normal life.
The show was cancelled after a season, but it shows Johnson’s immaculate comic timing when playing a meek, overwhelmed character.
She also plays sweet in the forthcoming indie comedy-drama Chloe and Theo. Johnson’s a homeless New Yorker who helps a gentle Inuit man (Theo Ikummaq) warn the world about climate change.
But later this year, we’ll see Johnson steam up the screen in two darker, but distinct, roles. Erotic thriller A Bigger Splash, a remake of the 1969 French film La Piscine, follows a deadly entanglement in Italy between an American couple, the wife’s ex-lover and his teenage daughter. Johnson plays the daughter – a role originated by doe-eyed sexpot Jane Birkin.
And in the hotly anticipated true-crime drama Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Johnson will play Lindsey Cyr, longtime girlfriend of feared Boston Irish mobster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp).
Fifty Shades showed Johnson has the intelligence to humanise and strengthen a clichéd wimp of a heroine. But thanks to her familiarity with Tinseltown, and her natural, warm screen presence, it could be just the start of a promising career.