In Defence of… Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp has far more fans than detractors – but they do exist, and for a long while I was one of them.

Starting out as mere Freddy-fodder in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, the ensuing years of Depp’s career were hardly prolific, the highlight being a role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. But then TV came to the rescue.

In 1987 Johnny Depp rose to fame as one of the dreamy undercover cops on 21 Jump Street, where every episode was seemingly about the various cops posing as the ‘new kid’ in a high school somewhere to find the truth about something – usually something PG13 gang related (“Hey my lunch money!”) or concerning a rogue teacher (“Hey my lunch money!”).

The role made Depp a heartthrob to young girls and ensured that he could be found in every Tiger Beat or cute-boy related magazine of the time, in much the same way as you don’t see the cover of a women’s magazine without a Kardashian reference on it today… But after a few seasons of living the TV high life Depp walked away from the adulation, claiming that he wanted to be a ‘serious actor’. Cue the eye-rolls, after all this happens every couple years when a star of a successful show feels that they are destined for bigger things and that the show has been holding them back somehow. I mean look at how well the guys from Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond have done without the TV imposed shackles holding them back.

But Depp went ahead anyway, and you could have been forgiven for assuming that he might’ve gotten some ‘Cute boyfriend’ roles and then faded into obscurity, in fact his first lead role was as the impossibly good looking misunderstood heartthrob in Cry Baby *SIGH*.

He was even working his way through every hot starlet in Hollywood, with Sherilyn Fenn, Winona Ryder and Kate Moss all among his conquests – I’m not hatin’, that’s kinda why you become famous isn’t it?

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But then something a little odd happened. Depp stopped cruising the red carpets, withdrew from the spotlight and started turning down roles with descriptors that seemed too generic ‘action hero’ or ‘handsome boyfriend’ in nature. In fact the early 90s more often than not saw him playing down his natural attributes and taking on quirky and oddball roles in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Benny and Joon and Dead Man.

The man stopped being merely impossibly good looking and crept into ‘actually interesting’ territory.

More importantly the 90s also saw him team with Tim Burton for the first time, something that has lent credibility, bankability and probably increased his asking price over the years. Since Edward Scissorhands Depp has been Burton’s muse and whipping boy for six films – seven if you include his voice role in Corpse Bride – with the frequency of their collaborations increasing in the last decade or so, even though I would argue the quality of the output has diminished.

Also in the last decade? The unavoidable elephant in the room; a recurring role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean cash-cow… series of films. Now four films deep and well over 1.5 BILLION in the box office, many would see it as the role of a lifetime.

Now in the third decade of a career boasting nearly 40 leading movie roles and only more on the horizon, Depp could be seen to be coasting, especially now that the big budget high profile roles seem to be in far higher proportion to the artsy, more credible stuff.

So today I might address a few knocks on the career of one J. Depp – including some made over the years by myself – and why perhaps these accusations and assumptions are unfounded.

“He’s just a pretty boy, not a real actor like Steve Buscemi and Christian Bale.”

Granted, he’s not ugly, but Depp has managed to craft a resume with a fair mix of down to earth types, oddballs and everyday characters, as well as having the convenient ability to play a dreamboat like Don Juan DeMarco or John Dillinger.

And you tell me that someone obsessed with their appearance would allow Burton to transform them into Edward Scissorhands, the Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka!

Appearances aside, Depp has also been the leading light in more than a few roles based upon other intangibles, he made From Hell far more entertaining than it perhaps should have been, and Finding Neverland is one of those period dramas that you think you’ll hate, then can’t believe how good it was.

And you’re dimples and immaculate locks are of no use when we can’t see you. Rango was perhaps the biggest surprise for me so far this year, it was clever, entertaining, creative and funny as hell, and most of the laughs came from Depp’s brilliant voice performance as the titular chameleon. (I’m not one to give out credit based upon the success of the film, the cast of Madagascar (Sacha Baron Cohen aside) SUCKED, and many other animated films fall victim to ‘Just put a famous voice in there’ syndrome… um John Travolta is the voice of a superhero dog??) But Depp made Rango better. Way better. Simply through terrific characterisation and a performance that helped drive the film.

Sure he’s pretty, but that ain’t all…

“He’s just Burton’s bitch. Without him he’s nuthin’.”

As mentioned Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have a relationship that goes back to Edward Scissorhands in 1990, the role enhanced both of their careers, even though Burton already had Beetlejuice and Batman under his belt.

Ed Wood followed a few years later, then (the underrated) Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland.

Prior to the last decade Depp’s CV was a mix of creativity, indulgence and getting paid. He’d do the Hollywood pap and get paid (The Tourist), then the indulgent (Rango), before the lure of the latest Burton project hooked him back in.

It seems to me that Depp realised that he was in his 40s, and if he truly wanted to make lasting and creative work then Tim Burton was the wagon to hitch onto. It can’t be helped if by being Mr Burton’s monkey-boy he simultaneously managed to hit all three bases at once. I mean if being able to slather on makeup and silly wigs and having cinematic tea parties isn’t indulgent then I don’t know what is, Tim Burton is undeniably creative and manages to make even the blandest material more watchable and challenging, and blow me down if they didn’t start making bucket loads at the box-office.

As a guy with three basic aims can you really blame someone if they choose to continually go back to a co-conspirator who fulfills both creative goals AND fills the pockets?

Thought not.

“He’s a sell-out.”

Harder to argue given the success of Pirates… But the Tim Burton stuff before Sweeney Todd earned more plaudits than box-office, and before Pirates his biggest success was… nothing really. In fact Rango is the only non-Pirates, non-Burton film that he’s seen top 100M. So given that Depp has made 60 something films and seen most make negligible cash can we really begrudge a man for trying to make a few bucks once he finally strikes it rich? After all those tacky woven wrist thingies don’t pay for themselves.

Now that he is an indisputable box-office draw this may be something to watch in the next few years, if we see ‘Pirates 6: the search for Curley’s Gold’, or more painfully, if he shows up in ‘The Avengers 3’ as a fiendish villain desperately trying to remain in the limelight, we’ll know he’s gone over the edge.

Until then, I’ll keep ignoring shit like The Tourist – as it seems like everyone else did – and hoping that Johnny Depp chooses more stuff like Finding Neverland, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rango and even Public Enemies to fill the time between the blockbuster.

“He’s over-rated.”

That’s for you to decide. Once upon a time I thought so too. But now looking back at 40 odd credits I can’t help but see enough evidence to alter that opinion.

Mr Depp, even if you do stay in your comfort zone and settle for Jack Sparrow type roles for the rest of your career, you have enough credits to justify that course of action.

But I don’t actually think for a minute that he’ll go down that road.

I still don’t know about the nearly 50 boho-hippie-grunge thing that he has going with the wispy facial hair, the tattered boots held together with duct tape and the wrist thingies, but even with that stuff Johnny Depp remains the big Hollywood star that you would most likely trust to babysit your kids, and perhaps the most unlikely pretty boy to actually make it as a bona fide actor with range and a CV capable of pleasing cinema watchers of every background and taste.

I might not wear the ‘I Love Johnny’ T-shirts or stand screaming at his poster for hours, but I will say – quietly – well done Mr Depp…

OGR

About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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2 Responses to In Defence of… Johnny Depp

  1. A thoughtful discussion – thank you! You forgot to mention FINDING NEVERLAND, which despite my being a fervent PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN fan, is my favorite performance of Depp’s.

    Cap’n Jack is anything but a sell out. Depp was nominated for an Academy Award for THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL! Depp and Geoffrey Rush set out to show us something we had never seen before and succeeded in creating truly original roles that avoided caricature.

    I once heard a wine critic say that if you like the taste of a wine, then it’s a good wine regardless of pedigree or what anyone else says. I think Johnny Depp would agree.

  2. OGR says:

    Thanks very much for the feedback. I did actually reference Finding Neverland as one of those films I half expected to hate before coming away pleasantly surprised. I must watch it again and put a review up.

    Cheers
    OGR

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