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What Dakota Johnson Can Learn From 6 Actresses Defined by Sexy Roles

What Dakota Johnson Can Learn From 6 Actresses Defined by Sexy Roles

With “Fifty Shades of Grey” still dominating the box office — albeit with a much softer grip — and details about the inevitable sequels still up in the air, there are two things we know for certain following the record-breaking opening of the film based on the erotic literary sensation.

Home Depot is likely to experience an uptick in sales of rope, cable ties and masking tape.
And the world is now Dakota Johnson’s aphrodisiacal oyster.

If anyone has benefited from the success of the big-screen version of the steamy best seller besides author E.L. James, who seems determined to not let her S&M baby out of her control as the trilogy continues its cinematic journey, it is the 25-year-old daughter of actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. (She attended the Oscars Sunday with her mother.)

The movie might have taken a flogging from critics, as reflected by its 24% Rotten Tomatoes score. But Johnson was regularly cited in reviews as the lone bright spot. As New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote: “What vitality ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ possesses belongs to Ms. Johnson, who is a champion lip-biter and no slouch at blushing, eye-rolling and trembling on the verge of tears. She’s a good actress, in other words.”

In a flash, fame has swooped down and found the actress (previously best known as Justin Timberlake’s Stanford coed conquest in 2010’s “The Social Network”) almost as quickly as those pesky seagulls went after her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, in the Hitchcock classic, 1963’s “The Birds.”

There was Johnson amid the notables in the audience for the “Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special,” bantering with Jerry Seinfeld while promoting her own “SNL” hosting stint this Saturday. She was prominently displayed in promos for the Oscar telecast. Johnson looked sleek and elegant in a fiery red single-shoulder-strap Saint Laurent gown while introducing one of the best-song nominees, “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again.”

And last week it was announced that Fox Searchlight snatched up the U.S. rights to Johnson’s film, “A Bigger Splash,” a certain-to-be-torrid remake of 1969’s “La Piscine” directed by Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”). The danger-fraught tale of passion and intrigue set on a remote Italian island co-stars Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone,” “The Drop”), Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes as Johnson’s father. It is expected to be released this year.

To be suddenly caught in such a whirlwind of attention — her split from Welsh musician squeeze Matthew Hitt, which would have gone unnoticed a year ago, turned into a trending tabloid topic over the weekend– isn’t exactly foreign to a child of Hollywood whose famous family continues to be in the spotlight. Still, 2006’s Miss Golden Globe has come a long way from being a supporting player in such comedies as 2012’s “21 Jump Street” and “The Five-Year Engagement” as well as starring in the short-lived Fox sitcom “Ben and Kate” that began in fall 2012 and ended after 16 episodes.

This month’s Vogue cover girl did sound a bit uncertain of what a post-“Fifty Shades” future holds in store for her in an interview with the fashion magazine: “I think about my dwindling anonymity and that’s really scary because a very large part of me would be perfectly happy living on a ranch in Colorado and having babies and chickens and horses—which I will do anyway.”

But she felt compelled to play Anastasia Steele, the shy yet smart virginal college student who falls into the clutches of handsome control-freak billionaire Christian Grey. It was especially difficult living up to the fantasy that millions of readers had in their minds. But she had to say yes. “I wanted to be involved because it’s so different and it’s an intense love story.”

Johnson might get a good glimpse of what lies ahead for her if she looks to other actresses from the past who found themselves the center of attention after doing racy parts in highly anticipated movies.

Here are six actresses who busted out in steamy films that captured the public’s imagination if not their libidos, and how capable they were in handling the notoriety that comes with being labeled as a sex symbol. 

1. That would include her Oscar date mother Melanie Griffith, who at 17 made a big splash of her own in 1975 by appearing nude in the Gene Hackman detective noir, “Night Moves.” Griffith also played a porn actress in Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” from 1984 and was a handcuff-toting wildcat in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” from 1986. Her career highpoint came as the Oscar-nominated star of 1988’s “Working Girl,” directed by Mike Nichols.

The lesson to be taken away from Griffith’s experience, at least early in her career? It pays to work with top-notch veteran directors.

2. Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). This then-unknown French actress was just 19 when she played a seductive dark-eyed beauty opposite Marlon Brando’s middle-age widower. The characters agree to meet for anonymous sexual trysts at his Paris apartment and lust ensues. It was rare that a star of Brando’s stature would be in a graphic X-rated film, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and word of mouth caused French moviegoers to wait in lines for hours during its first month in theaters. Most notorious was the sodomy sequence that was not in the script and was foisted upon Schneider.

“I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” she said in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail. “People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn’t me. I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol — I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.”

Schneider would go to do “The Passenger” in 1975, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (“Blow-Up”) opposite Jack Nicholson but mostly acted in European films and TV shows that did not receive much U.S. distribution (and she never did nudity again). After struggling with drug overdoses, suicidal tendencies and rocky relationships for much of her life, Schneider died from cancer at age 58 in 2011.

The lesson: While Johnson is older and much more prepared to deal with the media attention she is receiving, she should beware of becoming trapped in various shades of Anastasia Steele instead of capitalizing upon it when need be.

3. Kim Basinger in “91/2 Weeks” (1986). The actress first broke out as a Bond girl in 1983’s “Never Say Never Again,” with Sean Connery returning to the secret agent role for the first time in 12 years. A nude pictorial in Playboy led to her winning a role alongside Robert Redford in the 1984 baseball drama “The Natural.”

Basinger’s most notorious part, however, was in Adrian Lyne’s boundary-pushing drama “9½ Weeks, ” in which her Manhattan art gallery worker and Mickey Rourke’s Wall Street broker engage in sexual games of increasing intensity, from blindfolds and cross-dressing to sadomasochism and sharing a prostitute during a brief affair that lasts the duration of the title. The film bombed at the U.S. box office but did well internationally and later gained a fervid following on video and DVD.

She told People magazine that she initially had misgivings about the film, despite its then-considerable $400,000 pay check: “I didn’t want the part, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t want to go that far in life, ever. It is one thing to be an actress, but another to do this film.” But she ultimately decided to do it “because the role is powerful. I would get up each morning and think, ‘What I am doing will be phenomenal, and phenomenal for me from the standpoint of self-confidence.’” 

The film certainly didn’t do her any harm and, in fact, increased her profile considerably. In 1989, Basinger starred opposite Michael Keaton’s “Batman” as the superhero’s love interest Vicki Vale in the Tim Burton-directed blockbuster .

And after taking a three-year acting break following 1994’s “The Getaway” remake with then-husband Alec Baldwin and Robert Altman’s fashion satire “Pret-a-Porter,” she was back and at her best in Curtis Hanson’s ‘50s-era crime thriller “L.A. Confidential” as a beguiling Veronica Lake-look-alike call girl who gets entangled in an LAPD investigation. As a reward, Basinger won the 1997 supporting-actress Oscar.

The lesson: Nothing wrong with snagging roles on the basis of your looks, but do try make sure there is some quality meat to sink your teeth into along with the less-substantive potatoes.

4. Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” (1992). Although she and director Paul Verhoeven worked previously on 1990’s “Total Recall” (which she promoted by doing a nude Playboy spread), Stone claimed to have felt misled when it came to doing the explicit scene that would end up shadowing her throughout her career: The police interrogation scene in “Basic Instinct.” Facing a row of men while seated in a chair, her suspected serial killer taunts them by uncrossing and crossing her legs while not wearing any underwear.

That still-buzzed-about commando moment (which just got a mention in Neil Patrick Harris’ opening Oscar number), along with various carnal acts with co-star Michael Douglas’ homicide detective, turned Stone at age 34 into a star. However, that did not stop her from criticizing her director: “I knew that we were going to do this leg-crossing thing and I knew that we were going to allude to the concept that I was nude, but I did not think that you would see my vagina in the scene.” Verhoeven has long denied that Stone didn’t know what she was getting into.

That concern did not stand in the way of her becoming involved in 1993’s “Sliver,” another sexually charged crime thriller written “Basic Instinct’s” Joe Eszterhas that flirted with a restrictive NC-17 rating.

In 1995, she would earn respect along with a Golden Globe trophy and an Oscar nomination as casino boss Robert De Niro’s long-suffering wife and ex-prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” Since then, Stone continues to appear in movies and TV, usually in supporting parts, although her nadir probably was the long-delayed and much-derided “Basic Instinct 2” in 2005.

The lesson: Choose wisely and be yourself. Stone failed to capitalize on her awards attention from “Casino” and began doing recycled material, including a 1996 remake of the 1955 classic French thriller “Diabolique.” She even attempted to match the great Gena Rowlands as a gun moll on the run in a 1999 update of 1980’s “Gloria.” She has yet to regain her former momentum.

5. Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls” (1995). Dancer-model-actress Berkley, 23, was desperate to leave behind the good-girl image she acquired on the popular high-school sitcom “Saved by the Bell” while crossing into feature films. She threw herself into the role of viciously ambitious topless Vegas performer in “Showgirls,” another Verhoeven-Eszterhas collaboration. Critics initially jeered at the overt nudity, sleazy sex-capades and ridiculous backstage back-stabbing that propelled the rare NC-17 that was widely released.

After flopping initially and collecting a then-record seven Razzies, “Showgirls” would eventually obtain a more affectionate reputation as a campy guilty pleasure. (One critic wrote the book It Doesn’t Suck.) As for Berkley, she also managed to redeem herself step by step, first taking a small role in the 1996 comedy hit “The First Wives Club,” then appearing in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” in 1999, Woody Allen’s “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” in 2001 and in the well-received indie film “Roger Dodger” with Jennifer Beals, Jesse Eisenberg and Scott Campbell in 2002.
But she managed to finally shake off any lingering Showgirl notoriety when she took to the New York stage, first in her 2004 Broadway debut opposite Richard Dreyfuss in “Sly Fox” and then taking over for Catherine Keener and getting terrific reviews in a 2005 off-Broadway revival of “Hurlyburly” with Ethan Hawke and Parker Posey . New York Times critic Charles Isherwood even published an apology after unfairly underestimating her talent.

The lesson: Johnson isn’t likely to suffer that many slings and arrows beyond what is in Christian’s Red Room of Pain, given the box-office success of “Fifty Shades.” Money is a great shield sometimes. But she should take measures to ensure she is known for more than just being the whips-and-chains girl and is taken seriously beyond the franchise.

6. Halle Berry in “Swordfish” (2001). The former beauty pageant contestant broke through in Eddie Murphy’s 1992 comedy “Boomerang,” survived “The Flintstones” in 1994, held her own opposite Warren Beatty in the 1998 political satire “Bulworth” and won an Emmy and a Golden Globe as the headliner of the TV movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.”

She also continues to play Storm in the “X-Men” franchise, which began in 2000. But in 2001, Berry decided to do her first topless scene in the computer-hacking thriller “Swordfish” for a price, namely $500,000 on top of her $2 million fee. The press went wild over the story while Berry would later explained she did the gratuitous sunbathing scene with co-star Hugh Jackman to get over her fear of doing onscreen nudity.

Despite the publicity, “Swordfish” grossed just over $147 million worldwide on a $102 million budget. But. in an interesting twist, Berry has credited the crime caper with allowing her to handle a much more sexually graphic role that same year.

As she told a reporter for Canada’s Canoe in 2007, “I didn’t know this, but somehow the universe was bringing that to me because ‘Monster’s Ball‘ was coming. And I never would have been able to do that if I had not had this gratuitous little moment in the movie right before.”

The racially charged drama about a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who has an affair with a widowed waitress who doesn’t know that her convict husband was put to death under his watch. The attraction they share, in part powered by grief, results in primal bouts of risqué sex. Berry’s grippingly real performance would lead her to become the first black lead actress to win an Oscar.

The lesson: Nudity can empower an actress as much as it can prove demeaning. As long as Johnson has a say in how she is portrayed onscreen now and in the future, she should be fine – even if her “Fifty Shades” involvement doesn’t involve awards.

So far, Johnson has shown few qualms about the requirements of being Anastasia Steele in the flesh. As her female director, Sam Taylor-Johnson told Vogue: “Dakota has the ability to play so fragile and vulnerable, but she has this underlying strength that makes you feel she is going to triumph.”

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