A couple of years ago, with that pugnacious modesty of his, Johnny Depp told an interviewer that Tom Cruise was a great movie star. Presumably, Cruise fans beamed fondly and the rest of you yawned, but I was taken aback. Lord knows Depp has never been Mr. Etiquette, but it’s not like him to be so rude.
More in character is how compulsively he defines himself by omission. Though he usually stops short of belittling his contemporaries by name, Johnny’s low opinion of stardom for its own sake isn’t exactly a secret. He’s the kind of actor who’s almost as famous for what he refuses to do as for what he does, and ever since he evaded teen-idol status by bolting Fox’s 21 Jump Street in 1989, his allergy to courting our approval has rivaled the average imam’s reaction to an all-pork diet. Since ingratiating himself not only is Cruise’s definition of stardom but also often seems to be his definition of acting, you see the point: If a great movie star is what Tom is, Depp must be something else—the anti-Cruise, if only by implication.
At the time, he had a pressing reason to remind us of the distinction—namely, the success of an esoteric little art flick called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. After years of following his bliss in acting jobs so wayward that bizzers had dubbed him box-office poison, Depp was playing in Cruise’s league—and beating him, with a disarmingly good-natured summer blockbuster whose ticket sales topped the combined receipts for The Last Samurai and Collateral. If only Captain Jack had somehow found time to rescue Katie Holmes from Scientology.
With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest out this month and a third installment in the can, Depp has become the main attraction in his first-ever franchise. His elegantly wrecked, sashaying impersonation of Keith Richards OD’ing on Froot Loops was so unquestionably the making of Pirates that the industry responded with a rare accolade: a Best Actor nomination for a kiddie film. To understand how fluke transformed Depp’s relationship with the big public, try to imagine the impact on Marlon Brando’s fortunes if his song-and-dance turn in 1955’s Guys and Dolls had left audiences baying for more.
Invoking Brando’s ghost cuts just about every actor down to size. But Depp, who benefited from the elderly Brando’s on-set tutorials when they costarred in Don Juan DeMarco, is one of the few performers who don’t instantly shrivel under the comparison. That’s why his career is our era’s best index to a truth Sean Penn has yet to latch onto, which is that the next Brando (d’oh!) won’t be anything like the old one.
The differences between Depp and his onetime mentor are obvious. One was a testosterone opera; the other is haiku. Brando’s agonized rendition of postwar masculinity incarnated grand-scale possibilities, while Depp is a one-man subculture, a specialist in marginalia and off-topic kerfuffle. Yet they’re similarly unpredictable, similarly unconcerned with traditional notions of what Great Acting should look like, and similarly inventive in finding ways of getting inside a character’s skin while also reminding us we’re forever outside it.
Even in inconsequential parts, Depp never seems trivial or banal, and there’s a reason for that. Tom Cruise may qualify as a fairly perplexing human being, but his screen persona’s main virtue is its legibility. Depp’s presence, on the other hand, can charge almost any movie with intangible meaning—even one as blatantly meaningless as Secret Window. Following him from role to role is like watching a firefly play chess.
He might have been happier torching the joint, but times change and you can’t have everything. Being tangential beats being irrelevant, and Depp’s fey gambits and recusals make the most sense as an imaginative way of adapting to and dissenting from a culture where the rebel tradition he identifies with is so commodified it’s only in demand as a charade. Let’s not forget that he was once romantic enough to imagine that the Viper Room, his L.A. nightclub, might bring back the glamour of Hollywood’s louche heyday. It got famous instead when River Phoenix died on its sidewalk, and to his credit, Depp never tells journalists what they want to hear about that, which was that it was a turning point for him; he talks about Phoenix’s talent instead. But even if he went on unrepentantly indulging for some years afterward, he clearly gave up on the idea of presiding over any kind of rebirth of cool.
The form his rebellion eventually took is more surreptitious, since its' only constants are his mistrust of heroism and pleasure in undermining traditional images of male forcefulness with flutters of inadequacy or flagrant effeminacy. It’s not for nothing that he first came into his own as the grotesque, gentle, semiandrogynous hero of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Dedicated heterosexual though he’s known to be offscreen, Depp the actor is nonetheless liberated enough to revel in raiding gay sensibility for insights and surprises, from his candidly girlie Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow to his startling cameo as an obscenely sexy transvestite in Before Night Falls. One reason women may respond to him more than men is that, even in relatively straightforward parts, he incorporates female perceptions into his work—sometimes seductively, sometimes with perverse innocence.
Every once in a while, he’ll let a director use those sculpted cheekbones and foxy eyes of his the way Mother Nature intended directors to use them, as in his preposterous but satisfying role as the river-rat dreamboat in Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat. But left to his own devices, clearly his favorite work mode, Depp’s first priority is usually to contrive to make his looks irrelevant, leaving him free to explore the modern varieties of inner and outer deformity-isolation, emotional ineptitude, monomania, infantilism—whether or not they’re lurking in the script. Because he’s intrinsically funny and his wit adds perspective, he’s almost never as mawkish as that catalog implies. But even Captain Jack in Pirates, his most lighthearted part ever, is a covertly touching study in loneliness.
Even so, it’s not entirely Hollywood’s fault that Depp spent most of the ‘90s acting in movies whose main interest was his presence in them. After Edward Scissorhands, he was in demand to play adolescent or post-adolescent misfits: the reluctant linchpin of a dysfunctional family in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the porkpie-hatted Buster Keaton fan courting a mental-ward sprite in Benny & Joon, and so on. Not all of these deserved the skill Depp brought to them, but taken as refracted autobiography, what’s most revealing about his early roles is how persistently they champion bizarre fantasy lives as antidotes of reality’s drabness.
Depp has never abandoned that theme, or maybe I mean outgrown it. Witness his heartfelt J.M. Barrie two years ago in Finding Neverland, a movie that uses one kind of ickiness (make-believe as kiddie pseudo-spiritualism) to distract us from another (the creepy undertow of Barrie’s thwarted-to-nonexistent sexuality). As Depp passed 30, though, his disconcertingly unchanged pretty-boy face, along with his aversion to anything that might smack of endorsing normality, made him harder to cast, not that the industry didn’t try. He turned down the leads in both Speed and Titanic. But anyone who believes that “uncommercial” always equals “artistic” has to face how often the famously offbeat, intriguing choices Depp opted for instead wound up letting him give fascinating performances in offbeat, intriguing crap. Next to The Ninth Gate, Speed doesn’t look half bad.
It’s anyone’s guess how much he cares, since he’s often seemed indifferent to a project’s mediocrity so long as his own part lets him experiment with new ways of hiding and finding Johnny. What’s exasperating is that his acting instincts are as marvelous, and his commitment to each role as intense, as his judgment of material is iffy. Depp has no formal training, but he’s got a remarkable—and most often justified—trust in his own intuitions; no other actor gets so much subtext out of using his hands to choreograph misgivings and treating bad haircuts as the soul’s antennae. His real originality, however, is that his ideal of performance seems to be in imagining what his characters are like when they’re alone in a room. By his lights, interaction is always a compromise—a faltering or baroque rendition of a true self that stays secret.
As acting, this is often riveting. As a predilection, it has limits. Perhaps so few of Depp’s ‘90s vehicles connected with audiences because of his noninterest in portraying relationships: friendships, family ties, workplace attachments, and so on. When he isn’t adding unrequited depth to muddled thrillers or incarnating oddball frailty in Tim Burton’s latest hymn to it, he’s been most drawn to roles that let him explore an unusual fascination with depravity—in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as the dealer in Blow, as the Earl of Rochester in the recent The Libertine. What all these parts have in common is that they let him stay solitary, unattached, benignly or ominously special.
His collaborations with Burton aside, Depp hasn’t had great luck working with name directors. He was smart to erase the 21 Jump Street stigma by parodying a ‘50s bad boy in John Water’s Cry-Baby, but Cry-Baby inaugurated Water’s decline into avuncular sentimentality. Later, Depp took on The Ninth Gate to work with Roman Polanski, but Polanski, then in his pre-The Pianist schlockmeister mode, was probably just stunned that his star didn’t share his own evident contempt for the material. As for Fear and Loathing, not only was Gilliam the wrong director for it, but Depp gave one of his rare misconceived performances. Trying to measure up to one of his idols, he caught Hunter S. Thompson’s outer shell perfectly but clearly didn’t feel at liberty to offer a single insight into Thompson that Hunter himself wouldn’t endorse.
Only Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful Dead Man, with Depp doing the real Buster Keaton homage for which Benny & Joon had been a warm-up, stands out from the list, and the audience for Dead Man could comfortably hold reunions in an elevator. It may be no wonder if he came to prefer working for undemanding directors who would let him be the auteur of his own performance, if not the film. You’d love to see what Wes Anderson, say, or Nicole Holofeener might do with him, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Nor with the major exception of Donnie Brasco—which he knew was Al Pacino’s movie and played without adding any idiosyncrasies of his own—has Depp shown any interest in testing himself against costars whose charisma and talent might match his. He really is a one-man band.
Indeed, one reason he’s been Tim Burton’s favorite leading man is clearly that Burton, who has no great skill with or curiosity about actors, can count on Depp to invent his own way of delivering the goods. Yet the results have been mixed. Ed Wood caught the naïf in Wood but missed the roué, probably because Burton couldn’t imagine how one man could be both—a misapprehension I can’t help thinking Johnny could have straight on. Even from a director who’ll never grow up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory struck me as a bit long in the tooth fairy; Depp is famous for modeling his performances on unlikely inspirations, but turning Willy Wonka into Michael Jackson—Depp’s own denials to the contrary—was at once too obvious, at least by his standards, and too unpleasant.
Yet by then, of course, he was already indelibly Captain Jack Sparrow to a generation of tots. The real joke is that after twenty years of chasing edginess, Depp’s playing a pirate in a Disney movie ended up being the most subversive act of his career, with a characterization that made a better case for following your bliss than Ed Wood ever did—just as Depp’s flake-out CIA agent in Once Upon a Time in Mexico ended up saying more about drug-addled craziness than Blow and Fear and Loathing put together.
The Pirates sequel may well thrill the kiddies while disappointing me. Even the original was clumsily repetitious, in that jerry-built, overscaled popcorn-movie way, and Depp’s outrageousness is now part of the formula. Franchises exist to deliver more of the same—just what he’s spent his career avoiding—and that’s why they’re better left to Tom Cruise. Still, I’m looking forward more to Dead Man’s Chest than I am to Depp’s next obeisance to his private gods of cool: The Rum Diary, another chip off Hunter S. Thompson’s block. Even if Pirates is set, no matter how nominally, in a much more remote past, a brilliant cartoon like Captain Jack belongs to our shared present. That’s where the actors who matter to us live, giving posterity little glimpses of the way we were.
By now everyone knows that Johnny based Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean on Keith Richards, but who knew he also incorporated characteristics from a famously amorous cartoon skunk? Below are five Depp roles and the strange (sometimes brilliant) inspirations he might have used to bring them to life. Can you tell the real from the fake? (We just gave you the first one.)
Captain Jack Sparrow = Keith Richards + Pepe Le Pew
Ed Wood = Ronald Reagan + Casey Kasem
Ichabod Crane = Angela Lansbury + Roddy McDowall
Edward Scissorhands = Theda Bara + Frankenstein’s Monster
Secret Window’s Mort Rainey = Kurt Cobain + John Dean