Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Heath Holland On...Johnny Depp

Deep breath…here we go.

There was a point in time when proclaiming that Johnny Depp was your favorite actor actually meant something. Performances from deep within a disguise, like the one given in Edward Scissorhands, were rare and fresh; the actor was drawn to complex characters with multiple dimensions. Instead of bringing to life a series of cartoon characters, real magic was happening in movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, and Dead Man.

I’m not sure exactly when that changed. Like most things, it’s hard to pin it down on a certain moment or event; instead, it’s gradual erosion that occurs over years. The water comes closer and closer to your door until one day you wake up and find that your house has floated off into the ocean.

That ocean for Johnny Depp is polluted with over-the-top characters like Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins. Even Tonto from The Lone Ranger (which is a movie that I really love) is so far from an actual human being that it feels like a cartoon.

How does one defend the indefensible? How can I, in 2013, still claim Johnny Depp as one of my favorite actors when all the evidence points to a man who has been to the well too many times and who has lost the spark that made him so appealing in his younger years?
One of the reasons that I still love Johnny Depp is because he remains an interesting person in a world of celebrities I find to be almost entirely homogenous and boring. Interesting goes a long way with me these days. So much of what I see feels similar, uninspired and NOT INTERESTING.

Okay, it’s true that Depp has lately turned in one performance after another of the same thing, too. I’m over the makeup that draws attention to itself and the eccentric accents and affectations. But still…it is interesting. And sometimes it still works. The most recent entry in Disney’s swashbuckling franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is my favorite of the whole lot.

Don’t look at me like that. Seriously, no one seemed to like it, but I adore that movie. I found Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to be so tedious in the first three, with their good teeth, square jaws, and fine English breeding, that finally having the rogues of Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa in their own adventure was like an answer to prayer for me. Everyone’s complaint was that Jack has to be the engine of chaos through which the other characters are filtered and that chaos can’t be your main focus. Oh contraire, mon frère! I’ll take the chaos any day of the week over the familiar hero motif. But that’s probably me and my personality.

And maybe those two things (chaos and my own personality) are the keys for me. There’s something very subversive about the roles that Depp is taking on these days. Let me be clear: I’d much rather have roles grounded in life and real people, like Donnie Brasco, or even the tepid performance of Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Those are grown up roles by a grown up man. This other stuff is kid fodder. But that element of chaos carries it through for me because of my own messed up taste.
When The Lone Ranger was released earlier this year, Depp made the interview rounds with the press. One particularly revealing piece came from Rolling Stone which really helped me come to terms with some of the conflict I’ve been feeling about Depp for the last…oh, say, TEN YEARS.

In the interview, Depp talks about the hollowness and emptiness of it all. He sounds exhausted and completely empty. He hints that there was a drunken night where he and shock-rocker Marilyn Manson pissed on Depp’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. My own conclusions after reading the piece were that he was a man trapped by success and fame and had become part of the establishment that he used to rally against. I mean, I don’t have a psychology degree or anything (but my mom does, which means I’m halfway there), and it would be foolish to try to analyze someone based on a magazine interview. But then again, we’re all human and we all share a similar condition.

It’s not a secret that the first Pirates of the Caribbean film changed everything for him. If he was a household name for teenagers and twenty-somethings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pirates of the Caribbean made him a household name for everyone, including moms and dads and grandparents and your great aunt Pearl who smells like Polydent. That success opened the door of mainstream acceptance and huge paychecks along with it. As a family man, I can’t argue with the logic of choosing financial success over critical and artistic merit.

But it seems like those opportunities ended up painting him into a corner that he can’t easily get out of now. I mean, far be it from me to defend a multi-millionaire; I’m just really interested in how our fame machine can build people up but ultimately box them in. It’s a machine that’s hard to stop when it’s burning down the tracks at a hundred miles per hour. The impression I got from that Rolling Stone interview was a man who was financially secure but very bored. And he doesn’t watch his movies. I wonder if he knows how WE feel.
That brings me back to chaos. Thankfully, these ridiculous roles that he’s been taking since Captain Jack Sparrow have all had a subversive through-line. Certainly Captain Jack Sparrow has it: he has visible sores from syphilis…in a Disney movie. Millions and millions of people have cheered for a character with an STD in a family film.

And while The Lone Ranger takes a big poo on the classic television show on which it is based, his version of Tonto comes from an extremely subversive performance. The hero is an idiot, the cavalry are the bad guys, and Tonto is potentially insane.

Maybe that’s the way it has to be for him now. I don’t know why he can’t (or simply hasn’t) returned to more grounded roles. But if he’s caught in the fame machine and depends on these ridiculous paychecks and studio support, at least he hasn’t sold himself out like Vince Vaughn or Ben Stiller. At least he isn’t making movies like Grown Ups 3 or Delivery Man. He still has bite in him and his roles, though for the whole family, seem to give the middle finger to the system he’s now a part of.

Lastly, there’s another reason I still love Johnny Depp. This is going to sound INCREDIBLY pretentious, but it’s true: I really identify with his restlessness. Keith Richards, when not playing guitar for The Rolling Stones and falling out of coconut trees in Fiji, said that both he and Johnny Depp get along so well because they both have something to do, but they don’t know what that something is. I identify with this. As soon as I’ve conquered something, I need a new mountain to climb. The guy writing this column you’re reading is the same guy who drove across the country and back home again on back roads JUST FOR FUN. I’m told that’s unusual.

Also, weirdly, every single time I find a new interest, I discover Johnny Depp has been there first. I’m not bragging because it kind of pisses me off. And it’s not just music, which is the big thing Depp seems famous for outside of acting. It’s EVERYTHING. I thoroughly believe that if I took up an interest in the cultivation and farming of Norwegian ants, in about five days I’d discover an article on the internet about how Johnny Depp has been farming Norwegian ants since 1987. Indeed, the article would say, he was introduced to the hobby by Holly Robinson Peete while shooting 21 Jump Street for Fox. Seriously, a few years ago there were three separate instances inside of about a month where I would read a book about something I was developing an interest in and then discover that bastard Johnny Depp was a celebrity advocate for whatever it was.
Those may not be good reasons to like Johnny Depp, but they’re mine, and they’re personal, so be kind. It’s entirely possible to admire someone while still being disappointed with them, and that’s where I find myself. That’s ridiculous, though, because he owes me nothing. Any expectation of him to perform to the level he once did is something I put on him and not anything that he is obligated to meet. His version of integrity and mine will never intertwine, and I’ve not walked a mile in his combat boots.

In the end, we all have expectations. I still have mine. He’s got a few movies in production right now, and while they mostly seem like more of the same popular drivel, there’s hope for a couple of them to be more than prosthetic-covered parodies. I’ll try to temper my hopes because I’m almost never rewarded for expecting good things from mainstream Hollywood these days.

But then again, I’m not sure anyone hates mainstream Hollywood more than Johnny Depp.


  1. I still like Johnny Depp a lot too. Additionally, I am also a fan of Robert Downey Jr. Both are strong character actors. However, I think they both fall into the same pitfalls that you enumerated in your column.

    1. Yeah, I still like RDJ a lot, too. I'm not sure that either he nor Johnny Depp do well as action heroes, though. I think Robert Downey Jr functions well in roles like the one in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, where he was still a leading man, but not a mainstream hero. I don't wish either man any ill, but I do hope that they get back to those smaller roles soon, because that's where they fit the best.

  2. Johnny Depp = still a good actor and (mostly) still interesting.

    I think I'm one of only a few hundred people who's looking forward ro seeing The Lone Ranger.

    Interesting piece, and well done. Also, the cross country drive/back road return sounds cool, not weird. My two cents, anyway.

    1. Thanks, Albert! If you didn't catch them when I first wrote them, you can read about my trip across America on Route 66 with these three columns here on F This Movie.

  3. The lone ranger would have been infinitely better and 25 minutes shorter if you took out the entire museum frame story. As a whole, I don't actually mind Johnny Depp's performance but the museum scenes are as if there were no director present (or maybe there was and gore verbinski was going wit his signature "let Johnny Depp do whatever he wants" directing style.

    1. I feel like I'm missing something in those museum portions of the movie. Meaning that I think there's more going on there than I'm picking up on. Same with the last part of the movie. I'm hoping the blu-ray offers some clarification on some of the motivations behind those scenes, but there might not be any explanation offered.

      Also, does anyone else gather that it's really hard to direct Johnny Depp these days? I remember on one of the Pirates of the Caribbean blu-ray special features where they talked about Depp and Verbinski having a huge blow-up on set in which they were both literally screaming at each other. Doesn't Verbinski shoot a lot of takes? I can see that setting someone off.

    2. You should try to direct him yourself first and then talk about him being hard to direct. All of the directors who worked with him say nothing but wonderful things about how it is great to work with him and if Verbinski found Jonny hard to direct then he wouldn't work with him twice after that! and if he was hard to direct he wouldn't be in working in so many movies.

    3. Have you directed him? I'm guessing no. So what we have are two different opinions. That's ok. this Tim Burton?

    4. Tim! I love Pee Wee's Big Adventure!

  4. What a load of nonesense. You are talking as if Johnny is a has been or someone who no one likes anymore when in the REAL WORLD he is still at the top even though his latest movies weren't so successful. I also didn't like how you were talking as if he only gave and did goood performances/movies in his "early days" because if you looked closely, His work in the 2000s is much more recognised and appreciated and he got all of his Oscar nominations and big awards for his performances in movies such as Pirates, Sweeney Todd, etc. His 90s movies are famous now because he is widely famous thanks to POTC. If he was so appealing in his younger days then how come he only made it big with Pirates and became a people's favourite ever since? he gave some of his very best performances since Pirates1 in movies like The Libertine, Finding Neverland, Secret Window, Sweeney Todd and Public Enemies. Have you even seen those or you only saw Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, etc? and what do you mean when you said about his upcoming movies "they mostly seem like more of the same popular drivel" How so? Transcendence is an original serious dramatic sci-fi movie and is the directorial debut of Oscar winner cinematographer Wally Pfister with a black list winning script, Into The woods is a musical directed by Rob Marshall and written by James Lapine (the original writer of the book) and Stephen Sondheim himself is working on it with an impressive ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Mortdecai is an action comedy and the reunite David Koepp who directed him in Secret Window and got an amazing performance out of him, it is based on a series of interesting books and Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow are in it.

    So he is doing different stuff and is working with different people and you are still like "it's the same popular drivel"? All of these movies are nothing like "the same popular drivel"

    1. You're right. Johnny Depp is more popular than ever. The article says as much. But he was once a well-respected actor among the critical community, and that's not really the case anymore. That doesn't that you can't still respect him or that you can't like him. Heath still likes him. That's the point of the article.

    2. ysoof groof (IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME), I appreciate you taking time to comment, but what interests me is that you seem to think I don't like Johnny Depp when this column is really me talking about why I DO. Patrick's right, Depp has lost respect in the critical community because he's become predictable in his unpredictability by playing cartoon characters. But he's one of the biggest stars on the planet. I never said otherwise. I lament the loss of the very quiet roles that largely ended with his mainstream success, and that's what this is about, but it's also about why I still like him. So I'm not sure how my opinion could be NONSENSE (and it couldn't be clearer that this is MY opinion, because it has my name on it), and neither is yours. They're opinions.

      I also referenced Public Enemies from 2009, and said I wanted more things like that (though I did find him to be miscast). Furthermore, Secret Window and Finding Neverland were both almost a decade ago. Since the success of the Pirates franchise, those roles have been RARE. But those are exactly the kinds of movies I'd like to see him make a return to.

      Popular drivel - the role of the Wolf in Into The Woods, currently being filmed, and the recently announced Alice In Wonderland 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales. These are the types of roles I'd like to see Depp take a break from. But then again, I lay out in my column how I can understand why he doesn't.

      Not sure why this all bothers you so much, especially given the nature of personal tastes, and I'm not sure why you felt so offended that you needed to tell me I was wrong. Still, I appreciate your thoughts.