In the groundbreaking 1993 video essay film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, the director Mark Rappaport convincingly contends that Hudson, the beloved star of many a 1950s romantic feature who lived his life as a closeted gay man, would often invite his friends over to watch his movies to have a good laugh at the subtext he slid in.
I like to imagine that, years from now, when Dakota Johnson has taken her rightful place among the most beloved actors of her generation, she and her friends will similarly gather to cackle over her breakthrough roles in the Fifty Shades movies—how they showcase a gifted actor trapped by the staggering limitations of her material, muddling through as best she can. On their surface, the Fifty Shades movies are erotic thrillers; viewed through the lens of Dakota Johnson’s considerable talent, they’re hostage videos.
With the series drawing to a merciful close with this weekend’s release of Fifty Shades Freed, we’re long overdue for an appreciation of Ms. Johnson—and, frankly, what she’s been through in her time playing the ridiculously monikered “Anastasia Steele.” She’s spent three films paired with the least charismatic actor in modern franchise filmmaking, a man whose monotone line readings and deadpan remove from even the most emotional scene recalls the high school football star who did the school play for extra credit in English class.
She’s then followed each of those shoots with a pained press tour of paired interviews with her co-star, in which it’s abundantly clear that their minimal onscreen chemistry is straight-up Hepburn-and-Tracy compared to their off-screen camaraderie. She’s then soldiered on to the next one, baring her body, soul, and comic chops—the very definition of an actor doing more than anyone expects, whether it matters or not.
And make no mistake, she could sleepwalk through these movies. (Jamie Dornan certainly does.) They’re embarrassing tripe, poorly written, sloppily assembled, and sound-tracked within an inch of their lives. Each VH1 jukebox needle-drop is clumsily timed to inform its audience that it’s time for another breakup, sex scene, or montage of riding in a fancy jet or fast car. (The much-ballyhooed sex is notable mostly for its dullness; these films are filled with ornate, theatrical lead-ups to the tamest of light-bondage foreplay, which give way to the blandest missionary-position sex imaginable. For a brand built on kink, these movies are astonishingly vanilla.)
But Dakota Johnson is a professional—a third-generation actor, in fact, the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren and daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. She plays every single scene to the limit, finding truth in the hackneyed dramatic beats and keeping a straight face when Jamie Dornan tries to emote. She even convincingly continues to feign surprise every time she discovers that her billionaire beau/husband owns more planes and homes.
She doesn’t wink at us, because that’s not what a professional does; she doesn’t project condescension toward the material either, though you couldn’t blame her if she did. No, what she does in these films is more complicated: Clearly, early on, she decided that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (and, later, James Foley) could make whatever silly-ass erotic thriller they were making, but she was starring in a light comedy about a naïve young woman who meets a real piece of work. So she approaches her scenes alternating wide-eyed wonder and knowing wit, lending a merriment to her work that lifts a hundred-pound weight off the rest of this dour franchise.
The Fifty Shades movies aren’t fun, even during the rich-ladies-slapping-one-another climax of the second (and goofiest) picture, Fifty Shades Darker. But Dakota Johnson is fun to watch in them . She gets fewer opportunities to flex that muscle in the latest installment, since its makers have somehow convinced themselves that there’s not only a story we care about, but an arc to be followed. So this one ends up collapsing into a bunch of nonsense concerning Ana’s hot boss turned cackling villain (named, no kidding, “Mr. Hyde”), complete with car chases, a kidnapping, a ransom, and a shootout. Johnson, trooper that she is, plays all that stuff straight.
But she does manage to get a few laughs, thanks to her crackerjack comic timing: informing her protective husband of the nude beach she’s lounging on, “It’s Boobs in Boob-land, nobody cares about mine”; taking a little pause in the middle of her response to being told she “won’t even notice” the presence of the household staff, so it goes, “That… seems unlikely, but thank you!”; piping up, when the security staff realized they have no restraints for a household intruder, with an immediate, “We do! I mean, I can… find something…”
To be sure, these are needles in the haystack. There’s nothing in Fifty Shades Freed that even approaches the “contract scene” in Fifty Shades of Grey, which Johnson’s sly line readings, perfectly timed responses, and nonplussed expressions—coupled with Taylor-Johnson’s witty staging and the razor-sharp editing (by, among others, Out of Sight cutter Anne V. Coates)—turn into the undisputed highlight of the series:
“Strike it out.” In retrospect, with this series at its end, the contract scene is more than a little depressing, because it suggests what these movies could have been (sharp, spiky, hot, and funny) if only the people who made them were as smart as their leading lady. But anyone who runs that scene the way Dakota Johnson does—juggling humor, sexiness, indecision, and confidence—should be able to do whatever the hell she wants in this business. Hopefully, now that her commitment to this franchise is over, she’ll be able to do just that.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Jason Bailey on Twitter.