In the interest of journalistic integrity, I feel I must disclose that my AIM screen name was once laurenndepp. I also may have, at some point in 2008, cut up a picture book of Johnny Depp and arranged his images in a heart-shaped collage on my wall. To experience similar emotional turmoil over the life and times of John Christopher Depp II, please listen to Hans Zimmer’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean” theme while you read.
What happened to Johnny Depp? We know him now as a parody of himself, who prepares for a night out by deciding how many leather bracelets to wear. The quirky charisma he lends each role, once seen as genius character acting, has become tired and redundant, perhaps regurgitated at peak force with that Mad Hatter dance from “Alice in Wonderland.” Depp has been dodging the Hollywood rule book since he achieved newfound fame post-“21 Jump Street,” and yet somehow he’s ended up tired and sold out after 30 years in the spotlight. He’s reached critical mass.
Depp truly hit superstardom in 2003 with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But he had made a name for himself long before. Convinced to pursue acting by one Nicolas Cage, Depp got his first part after he auditioned for “Nightmare on Elm Street” — scoring the role after Craven’s 13-year-old daughter saw Depp’s headshot and thought he was dreamy. From there, Depp landed “21 Jump Street.” The role of Tom Hanson allowed him to make a name for himself as a heartthrob. Soon his was Fox’s biggest star. But he rallied against an image based on his magnetic good looks, making deliberately risky choices in spite of the fact that he had once covered Tiger Beat.
Depp rejected being the Hero and Romantic Interest in favor of building to films like “Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas” and “Donnie Brasco” in the late ’90s. Almost a decade before those golden years on his résumé, he told “21 Jump Street” directors Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh that he wanted to be fired. He spit in the face of his shallow success as a teen idol, and signed on for John Waters’ “Cry-Baby,” a campy melodrama which actively mocked Fox studios’ attempt to mold him into a pretty boy product. Once Cannell and Hasburgh let Depp out of his contract, he had managed to build enough of a reputation on his skill and range (based largely on his work with Waters) to earn the titular role in “Edward Scissorhands,” despite the fact that Tim Burton had his pick of big names for the part (including Tom Cruise).
That’s the line on Depp’s IMDb page where things really take off. It’s easy to blame Burton for destroying our once-beloved handsome and accessible outsider. Thinking quickly back on their work together, it seems like Burton round down Depp’s uniqueness through the sheer repetition of characters like Willy Wonka and that unfunny vampire in “Dark Shadows.” Still, “Edward Scissorhands” is perhaps Burton’s best film and easily one of Depp’s best roles. In a way, Burton is responsible for both creating and destroying his muse.
Burton’s move into franchises and remakes is where Depp’s methods seemed to fade to schtick. In films like “Sweeney Todd,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows” — none of which are original works — Depp seemed to play on slight deviations of the same quirky charisma offset by a few weird hairdos. Released between 2005 and 2012, that set of films meant for an overload of sameness which managed to negatively affect public perception of Depp’s earlier work. Seeing roles like his godawful Mad Hatter damaged the glory of “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands” in retrospect. Burton can’t be blamed for the mess that was “Mortdecai” or Depp’s tired fairy tale wolf in “Into the Woods,” though those roles feel like they are part of the same chronic phoning it in. Watching even just two of the aforementioned disasters begs the question: how long had Depp just been playing slightly nuanced versions of the same off-beat dude?
Perhaps the strangest (and most infuriating) part of Depp’s career arc is that he would seemingly sell out at this point. He pursued only the most interesting parts when it was risky to do so, then gave into the cheap (franchise and remake) choices long after he’d earned the right to do whatever he wanted. He’s said he doesn’t “give a fuck” now, but where that used to apply to fame and money, apparently now it refers to quality.
Still, it’s not too late to tell my inner 12-year-old that there is hope. Assuming he doesn’t go to jail for bringing dogs to Australia, his upcoming “Black Mass” may be the beacon of light marking a return to form for several more decades of greatness. Depp has totally transformed himself for the role of Whitey Bulger. He’s shed his handsomeness for blotchy skin and a receding hair line. The tired idiosyncrasies of the latter Burton canon are laid to rest in exchange for a studied intensity reminiscent of his masterful first mob film, “Donnie Brasco.” There’s a chance for Depp to move out of critical mass through “Black Mass,” to continue, once again, picking roles for the love of the work (in favor of a fat pay check with which to buy more leather bracelets and / or islands).
If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine him talking to the mirror in the role of Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka or Sweeney Todd, winking at his reflection and flicking his wrist as he tells himself in a flourishing accent that it’s finally time to get back to work.
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