At the Academy Awards on Feb. 29, red-carpet watchers saw a whole new Johnny Depp: The famously scruffy Oscar nominee was surprisingly clean shaven and especially dapper in a Gucci tuxedo. Gone were the tangled locks, replaced with a new do by Laurent D. of L.A.’s PriveSalon. The look “was going back to glamor but with an edge,” says Laurent, who clipped Depp’s hair just hours before the Oscars at the actor’s Hollywood Hills home. There they spoke French, drank wine and listened to jazz as Depp’s girlfriend, French pop singer Vanessa Paradis, 31, and their kids Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, 23 months, wandered about. The style switch was deliberate, says Laurent: “He was looking for something different and wanted to make an effort.”
At 40, Depp does seem more Hollywood-friendly these days. Though he has a $2 million villa in the French village of Plan de la Tour, he spends about half of the year in Los Angeles and has even signed on to star in a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, last summer’s $650 million international hit that earned Depp his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His new thriller, Secret Window, is based on a Stephen King novella—a far cry from the edgy, sometimes bewildering movies he has often favored over more commercial projects throughout his career. In Window, he plays a terrorized writer who spends much of the film in tattered bathrobe (the star’s idea) and supplies the movie with the winningly off-kilter touch audiences have come to expect. “It’s been a very shocking year,” says PEOPLE’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive. “It’s been a really wonderful year on many levels. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand it.”
Post-Pirates, “he’s got little kids asking for his autograph now,” says Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It also showed the studios that he can carry a big movie.” But even while he’s enjoying his mainstream success, Depp hasn’t hurt his artistic rep. Though Mystic River’s Sean Penn beat him at the Oscars, Depp won a surprise award for his Pirates performance for the Screen Actor’s Guild last month. And several of his upcoming projects mark a return to more adventurous fare. Says Secret Window producer Gavin Polone: “Ultimately, it will be about him making a decision from a creative point of view.”
And then there is his commitment to family. Arriving a little late to the Secret Window set one day, “he said, ‘I’m sorry, my daughter really wanted to play, and there was no two ways about it,’” recalls Polone. No doubt his kids will be delighted by Dad’s upcoming role as Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder in ‘71’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Growing up with [Wilder’s] performance is an amazing thing,” says Depp. Then he makes a promise that no one doubts he can deliver on: “But now I have to go in another direction completely.”
Welcome to another episode of the ever popular Johnny Depp Show, in which our featured star brings his idiosyncratic bag of tics and tricks to yet another middling vehicle, making it immeasurably better. This time it’s Secret Window, a paranoia thriller based on a 1990 novella by Stephen King, which plays like the training-wheel version of the same author’s The Shining (1980). Here’s Johnny, indeed.
As in Shining, the protagonist in Window is a scribbler suffering from writer’s block who is rambling around in a place too big for him and having mean thoughts about his wife. Or, here, his soon-to-be ex-wife. Mort Rainey is a successful novelist gone to seed in the six months since he discovered that his spouse (Bello) was cheating on him. He’s living alone in a roomy lake house in upstate New York where, one day, a hick (Turturro) in a cowboy hat shows up to accuse him of plagiarizing a short story in which a man murders his wife. He threatens to harm Rainey and his wife if the writer doesn’t make things right. But it isn’t until he kills Rainey’s dog that Rainey takes him seriously.
All of this is mildly creepy but, as written and directed by David Koepp (who wrote Panic Room), there’s never a sense of mounting suspense or dread. Mostly, the movie plays like an extended treatise on why writers should get to the gym or coffee shop rather than spending too much time burrowing into their own twisted brains. Depp, his hair a waterfall of blond highlights and his basic attitude one of scornful skepticism, seems amused by his own performance, as well he might. Turturro hams it up, doing sinister with an occasional John Wayne spin. Bello, stuck playing straight woman to Depp, acquits herself honorably, but Johnny obviously is the one having all the fun. 2 ½ Stars out of 4.