Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Heath Holland On...Johnny Depp
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.