What, Exactly, Makes Scarlett Johansson's Voice So Sexy?

Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
Sterling Holloway, the man behind the Kaa the snake in Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of The Jungle Book also voiced sweet, honey-seeking Winnie-the-Pooh. The woman who voices Kaa in the live-action adaptation, out Friday, also voiced the operating system Joaquin Phoenix has sex with in Her. So, yeah, Disney is going in a different direction.

Yes, Holloway has been replaced by Scarlett Johansson. One iconic voice has been subbed in for another. (Did you know Holloway was also the voice of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland?) Goofy has given way to sexy. Yeah. We said it. “Sexiest snake I’ve ever seen (heard),” tweeted writer Kevin Polowy.

In the original film, Kaa is a lisping annoyance to Mowgli, but in Jon Favreau’s new adaptation, Kaa is a temptress, luring Mowgli (Neel Sethi) with knowledge and the promise of protection. The sequence alludes to the biblical serpent. Mowgli even comes to Kaa’s lair after chasing after some fruit. The audience first hears Kaa before seeing her. Her voice — Johansson’s — is more purr than hiss. It’s vaguely menacing, but you can’t blame Mowgli for not running away when Kaa calls him “sweet thing.” Wouldn’t you do the same if a ScarJo snake beckoned? What is it about her voice?

“It’s a real theater of the mind experience when you’re listening to her,” Vice President, Audible Studios Mike Charzuk told Refinery29. “It just paints a picture.” Audible tapped Johansson to read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for an edition released earlier this year.

Johansson’s voice has long been an object of fascination. A 2003 AP story, commemorating her breakout turns in Lost In Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring, compared Johansson to Lauren Bacall because of their similarly "husky” tones. In that interview, Johansson tried to downplay the allure of her voice, presenting it as more of a quirk than an asset. “I don’t know if my voice was ever really a drawback, and later, when I was just going out for film auditions, all the casting directors, they used to say, ‘You’ve got a great voice, Scarlett.’ And I’d be like, (switching to her froggiest, phlegmiest voice), ‘Thank you,’” she said.

"She's the kind of person that can tease you and get right to your core, but also it’s affectionate. You want to get teased by her."

Spike Jonze
But no amount of self-deprecation could curb the obsession. Two years later, Esquire writer Chris Jones gushed over "that voice" in a profile: “Isolated like that in the dark, it's a thing of shivers. Husky but not a smoker's hack, deep but not masculine, breathy but not gaspy, a trace of New York but not Queens, New York. It's perfection. It's what gets you, even in a movie theater.”

More recently, Anthony Lane wrote this florid passage in the New Yorker: “Then, there’s the voice; like Bacall, Veronica Lake, and Jessica Rabbit before her, Johansson appears to speak to us through a stream of invisible smoke, and her seductive nonappearance as Samantha, in ‘Her,’ showed how much body survives in the disembodied.”

Ah, yes, Her, the apotheosis of ScarJo voice work. Spike Jonze’s film about a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his operating system (Johansson) revealed she was just as attractive (to both the audience and the film’s protagonist) without a corporeal form. Describing why he went to Johansson, who came in after Samantha Morton was recast, Jonze told Indiewire: “The timbre of her voice is beautiful. It's the person inside the voice, it's her intelligence, and it’s her wit. She's the kind of person that can tease you and get right to your core but also it’s affectionate. You want to get teased by her.”

Johansson’s performance in the film is remarkable, as she builds a character that is alternately wiser than Theodore and naive about the world she cannot completely experience. However, the role also seems like a natural outgrowth of the fetishization of her voice engaged in by people like Jones. To Theodore she is also a VILF (Voice I’d Like To Fuck).

But it's not just that her voice carries some criteria of sexiness; there’s something omnipotent about it in Her — and elsewhere. In Luc Besson’s Lucy, she ends the movie with a God-like voiceover. (She gives her costar Morgan Freeman, a.k.a. Hollywood’s go-to deity, a run for his money). Kaa also has that quality. The snake entraps Mowgli by telling him, “I know what you are.” Then, through her eyes, she shows him a scene from his past, all the while circling around him, preparing for her feast. (Let’s not forget she also played an alien who lures men to their deaths in 2013's Under The Skin.)

Naturally, Audible wasn’t aiming for “sexy” when casting her for Wonderland. However, it's definitely Scarlett Johansson reading, so make of that what you will. "She has the voice that sits lower in a register that has a more pleasing sound to the ear than others," Charzuk said. "I wouldn’t call it sexy. I wouldn't go that way at all. I would say it has a nice, pleasing tone that fit this book."

Regardless of the project, there's something about the sound of Johansson that envelops an audience. That's why it works so well for Kaa. She coils you in tight and won't let go.

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