I have always felt that context was decisive, when it came to acting styles. I have heard it said that an actor should approach King Lear in the same way he approaches a French farce, and while I understand the point, I think it goes too far (as most generalizations do). The point of approach is important, and if there is a sense that you are condescending to the material, that you feel it is somehow beneath you, then that is obviously not good. I used an example from Katharine Hepburn’s life to illustrate this point in the post I wrote about her at HND. She was known for melodramas and weepies, up until that point. She had won an Oscar. She literally did not know how to “do” screwball comedy, and kept telegraphing to the audience, “I’m being funny!” It took a lot of work for her to get into the right context. And by context I mean: the stakes are just as high in Bringing Up Baby as they are in Macbeth – that is one of the reasons why it is so funny, and why comedy in general, when it does work, works. Stakes. Everything one does when one is acting must have stakes behind it. The stakes must be incredibly high. It may seem ridiculous that Cary Grant is wearing jodhpurs digging up the yard looking for a lost dinosaur bone, but why it is so funny is because it is so serious to HIM. If you condescend to the material (“David Huxley’s problems are just silly compared to Hamlet’s problems”), then the entire project suffers. You have not created the proper context for your work. The context of King Lear is different than the context of Noises Off, and the actor who can go from one to the other, seamlessly, adjusting his or her approach and talent to the material, is a rare gem indeed.
Another example I can think of is Gena Rowland’s acting. If you saw her only in her husband John Cassavetes’ pictures, you would be forgiven if you thought that she only had one context, and that was Cassavetes’ context. She so inhabits his world, of manic madness and alcohol addiction and neurosis, that she has melded completely with her director. But then you see her in Woody Allen’s Another Woman, and suddenly there is a revelation about this woman’s talent. I remember Mitchell saying this to me, years ago, in college, when we were talking about Rowlands – and I just looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Another Woman and find, gratifyingly, that he says the same thing:
There is a temptation to say that Rowlands has never been better than in this movie, but that would not be true. She is an extraordinary actor who is usually this good, and has been this good before, especially in some of the films of her husband, John Cassavetes. What is new here is the whole emotional tone of her character. Great actors and great directors sometimes find a common emotional ground, so that the actor becomes an instrument playing the director’s song.
Cassavetes is a wild, passionate spirit, emotionally disorganized, insecure and tumultuous, and Rowlands has reflected that personality in her characters for him – white-eyed women on the edge of stampede or breakdown.
Allen is introspective, considerate, apologetic, formidably intelligent, and controls people through thought and words rather than through physicality and temper. Rowlands now mirrors that personality, revealing in the process how the Cassavetes performances were indeed “acting” and not some kind of ersatz documentary reality. To see “Another Woman” is to get an insight into how good an actress Rowlands has been all along.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Rowlands is able to so completely adjust her context, depending on the project she is in, that when you see her in this or that part, you think, “THAT is her at her most natural state.” But it’s all different states. She does not bring the Cassavetes energy to the Woody Allen picture. It’s not just that her energy is different, she seems to have actually switched souls. This is not a gift that all actors have. Some are eager to show “range”, yet they have no idea how to operate in a context other than the one they are already familiar with.
Johnny Depp has always been an actor who is able to switch contexts with breathless agility. I guess you would call him “versatile”, but I am not wacky about that word, because it sounds too practical, too much like a trick. Depp has never had a signature part, although I suppose the word “quirky” comes up a lot with him (He picks “quirky” parts, he’s “quirky”!) another word I am not wacky about, because it’s too easy, too pat, it doesn’t come close to explaining what is going on with this actor. I don’t have enough distance yet from his body of work to see what it will look like after he is gone, but I have a feeling it will be one of those things that just continues to magnify in stature as the years pass. But who can say. For now, we are just left with the movies he makes, and also the pretty much inarticulate interviews he gives, where he is cagey about talking about acting, and doesn’t seem to have a language to describe what he does. (I experienced this in person, as well, when he came to my school.) Acting, for him, seems to happen in a realm that has nothing to do with words. It’s like a painter, perhaps. If it’s not on the canvas, then all the explaining in the world won’t matter. “What I was GOING for was …” Nope. What matters is whether or not you succeeded. So I’m not sure, I cannot speak for Johnny Depp, and I won’t even try. I can just give my response to this guy.
He is sensitive, that’s obvious. When he is involved in a project, he takes on the concerns/mood/theme of the whole. That’s a movie star. He melds himself to the needs of the director, the story. Harrison Ford talks a lot about this as well, although he doesn’t have the same range. I have always felt, though, that Ford’s personality would go very well in screwball comedies, that there would be something very interesting about seeing that big handsome guy bumbling around (a la Cary Grant), and his virtually supporting role in Working Girl showed how deft his talent really is. He’s got a great sense of humor. He is interested in story, not himself, which is one of the reasons why the last Indiana Jones movie was so much fun. Look at the flexibility with which he leapt back into that part after so many years. To nail the point home, he knew the context. He knew what movie he was in. So many actors at his level of fame lose their ability to do that, out of caution, fear, whatever, and so they keep repeating themselves, sometimes to almost grotesque levels (phone call for Al Pacino …) As far as I’m concerned, Al Pacino has one context. And when he’s in a project that aligns with his limited context, nobody is better. He has a signature. Or … he did. Now, I’m not so sure.
Johnny Depp’s context in Public Enemies is completely different from the context in Alice in Wonderland. But I never feel like it’s a trick with him, or anything facile. It seems to be a natural extension of his talent. Something he has fun with. Total immersion. He’s a complicated guy, I have a hard time getting a line on him, but I do know this: I always want to watch him. And it is my opinion that he keeps getting more and more interesting. I feel like he’s just getting started. Finding his sea-legs. But what a body of work already.
As John Dillinger (and I wrote about this extensively here), Depp had a thin-lipped almost blank quality to him. This is more brilliant under examination, and goes along with Michael Mann’s themes of celebrity and adulation: Dillinger was a blank slate for the Depression-era audience who watched his exploits. Things were projected onto Dillinger. He was glamorous, he represented THEM, he was the glorious little-guy standing up to the banks, and etc. Even the cops got in the act. This is one of the facts of Dillinger. He was a cultural phenomenon. But let’s also be honest: Dude robbed banks. He was a hardened criminal, almost totally institutionalized. Both are true. It is a very American story. The script of Public Enemies served Depp’s creation of context here, because we are not told anything about Dillinger, his early life, his Freudian issues – nothing like that. His dad beat him. That’s all we know. But other than that: all we are left with is the dead-eyed smiling-face of Johnny Depp, a boyish lock of hair coming down on his forehead, just like Dillinger’s, and a strange blankness behind all of it. Depp is embodying not just the character he is playing, but the legend itself of Dillinger. This is no small task. If you think that’s easy, or a done deal, or so obvious, then you obviously haven’t seen a lot of biopics, which explain too much, and feature actors who have been unable to create a context for themselves in which to operate. Depp, along with Michael Mann, created a blank canvas, pretty much. That’s what I found so strange and singular about the film (again, see my post about it), is that it really had no interest in explanations. Here’s what happened. Dillinger said this about himself. So we’ll show that.
Depp’s disinterest in audience sympathy has always been a rather extraordinary thing for an actor who was once a teen idol, featured on the pages of Tiger Beat (just take a look at Corey Haim to see where his path COULD have gone, and where it most usually goes). Depp just flat out did not have an interest in that kind of fame, although he HAD that kind of fame, and unlike other actors who spit on the same audience who made them famous (Zac Efron’s recent comments about High School Musical come to mind), Depp never seemed to get caught up in it to the extent that it defined him. It had to be difficult, and I know he has struggled with the tabloids, and his love life, and drugs, and all of that, but his work remained strange, whimsical, fun, moving. He did not repeat himself. But at the same time, you didn’t sense an effort there to not repeat himself, as you do with some actors. He was as at home in Edward Scissorhands as he was in Benny and Joon, as at home in Pirates of the Caribbean as he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. He switched contexts with such ease. Also, it seemed fun for him. He seems to have fun in his career, as seriously as he obviously takes it. I am not making a value judgment here, by the way, about actors who have more struggles in the areas where he has ease. Acting is a tough career, and those who are really talented often have the toughest time, even if they have a lot of opportunities. I love Daniel Day-Lewis, and think he’s a genius, plain and simple, but I get the sense that acting really bothers him on some level, and he has to leave the career, from time to time, to get his bearings, to regroup. That’s the nature of his talent. So I’m not being positional here. I am just talking about Johnny Depp, and what I sense in him specifically, which I think is quite rare.
One of his strengths is that he has avoided the big action blockbuster route, something that I think has really impacted Russell Crowe’s career (and not in a good way). Crowe seems to struggle more openly with the demands of Hollywood and what it wants from him – and some of his huge hits have been so defining that they have ended up limiting him. I’d love to see him do a quiet little movie directed by, oh, Wes Anderson, or Sofia Coppola. I’d love to see him be allowed to switch contexts again, which he was so damn good at in the beginning of his career. As an example: watch Proof, Romper Stomper, The Sum of Us, LA Confidential and The Insider back to back, and you will see an actor who is seemingly comfortable in whatever context is thrown at him. He’s like Rowlands: his very soul seems to change, in these projects. Now, not so much. Fame is not easy. And fame like Crowe’s is a blinding light. It’s hard to go back to being fearless and NOT worrying about your Gladiator fan base and what they will think of you.
Depp was a heartthrob. But somewhere, he must have known who he was, what he was capable of. His homage to Buster Keaton in Benny and Joon is a real clue, and I thought a lot of his performance in that movie when I watched him as The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Buster Keaton wore a poker-face, even as buildings collapsed around his body. It was a mask. There was great sadness in his face, and yet you laugh hysterically watching his films. The face is a big part of it. His spectacular athletic ability is breathtaking, but without that poker-face, he wouldn’t be Buster Keaton. He’d just be a stunt man. Depp has that quality. Much of his work seems to involve “masks” (shut up, Mitchell), but the thing about “masks” is that in days of yore, when an actor put on a mask, he embodied the mask – the mask told him what to do. The mask led the way, not the other way around. Buster Keaton’s poker-face was a mask, a brilliant construct that makes his films the heart-rending and hilarious films that they are – and I think Depp uses masks in a similar way. It is not something to hide behind, as other actors seem to hide behind changes in their appearance (prosthetics, bad teeth, or even an accent – all of these things are masks, in a sense). Depp seems to use masks in the way the ancient Greek actors did, or the commedia dell arte troupes did. The masks telegraph to the audience: This is the character. You know this person already. He is a lover. A thief. A king. Keith Richards. Whatever. It plays on the audience’s sense of familiarity. But then the brilliance of the actor that can inhabit a mask elevates it from a trick or an effect. Meryl Streep does this, obviously, in a way that is extraordinary. But I don’t see Depp as similar to Streep. His work is more mannered, and that is what is so fascinating about him to me. He does not lack reality – on the contrary, whatever he is in seems totally real to him. He adjusts his context completely, depending on the project. I have often wondered if that is why he came off as so shy, and almost boring, when I met him. Of course that was an artificial situation, so let’s put THAT into context as well … but his inventiveness and sheer virtuosity seems to be in evidence only in his acting. He came off as soft-spoken and sweet, almost embarrassed, and like he couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was endearing.
It’s like meeting a writer you admire and love and seeing that they are just a regular old person. I met Sharon Olds, she came to see a show I did, and I spoke with her a bit afterwards. I am absolutely in LOVE with Sharon Olds, her work has a burning intensity of feeling and personal anguish that I found it hard to reconcile with the nice lady with glasses and a low-maintenance haircut that I was talking with. I love that. She was the opposite of eccentric. She obviously, from her work, lives life in a deeply personal way. She resonates, she vibrates, she turns her life into her poetry. But there she was, chatting with me, and there was nothing extraordinary about her at all. That was the best part of it. Johnny Depp was a little bit like that in person.
Frankly, it made his work seem even MORE important. It made him seem even more like a freak, outside the normal constraints of career-planning and fame-management. The personae cannot be reconciled. They are not meant to be. He is all of his roles. Every time you see in something, you think: THIS is the best context for him. And that feeling lasts until you see the next project.
As The Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp takes on a “scarecrow”-like role, to Alice’s Dorothy. He has been sitting at his long banquet table for years, waiting for that little Alice girl to come back. Perhaps it is the wait that pushed him over the edge.
What I got mostly from his performance was loneliness and what loneliness can do to someone. Depp is not “playing” mad here. There are times when his eyes get suddenly serious and grim, based on no external stimuli, he is responding to some inner cue, and it appears truly delusional. The Mad Hatter has an inner monologue of paranoia and denial that is going on at all times, and all Depp needs to do is look off to the left, or look inward, for a split second, for us to get all that. He resists camp, despite the makeup, the colored contact lenses, the wig, the crazy Artful Dodger costume (and the horrible ending where he does that dance. WTF?). Depp uses camp very specifically, and Pirates of the Caribbean is the most campy performance since Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show. (By the way, I love the stories of the producers seeing the first batch of dailies for Pirates – and saying to Depp, “Are you going to do the whole performance that way?”) Depp has a campy drag queen in him. Obviously.
We have seen it time and time again (and that is Depp in Ed Wood, one of my favorites of his performances), but, like a conductor, he can adjust it, he can modulate it. IT serves HIM, not the other way around. This is a very delicate dance, hard to describe. You just know it when you see it.
The Mad Hatter is an artisan in exile, sitting at his trashed banquet table in the woods, telling the same jokes with no punchline over and over and over again. The boredom of it has gone to his brain. Who is he without his work? Which was passed onto him from his ancestors? Who is he without a rollicking companion? He has gone mad. Maybe he was always a little bit mad, but here we see him at the breaking point. It is a very very funny performance, in its specificity. He has moments where his head bucks up, his eyes widen, and he repeats the same line over and over again, with different inflections, like he is trying to make sense not of events, but of the chaos in his own mind. It is strangely moving. Depp has captured the cruelty and anarchy in Lewis Carroll’s classic, which is, in its essence, a nasty piece of work, full of nasty sometimes-frightening characters.
In Tim Burton’s Alice, the Mad Hatter shares center stage with Alice and the Red Queen. Contrasted with those three, I felt that Anne Hathaway as the White Queen did not find a proper context for herself as the character. She looked phony and I was embarrassed for her. She was play-acting, she was pretending, she was aware that she was in a Tim Burton movie. She hadn’t worked it out for herself. Burton’s Mad Hatter becomes Alice’s primary compatriot. This is not quite what Carroll wrote, but this movie is not the book. Alice goes back to Wonderland as a young woman (yuk). Now, as a young woman, she revisits that place, not remembering that she had been there before. In Tim Burton’s Alice, the Mad Hatter takes on iconic proportions. He is “the one”. In Alice in Wonderland, it is the white rabbit who is the key. In Tim Burton’s Alice, Depp recites the Jabberwocky poem, preparing Alice for her Frodo-like confrontation with the feared beast. As he recites it, a Scottish lilt comes into his voice, something the character had perhaps crushed down in the various royal courts he worked in, and you can feel him going back in time. His eyes are full of horror and remembrance. Depp’s relishing of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical words take the exact right tone. It is how I have imagined these words being said. It is the fearfulness behind all of the “nonsense” penned by Lewis Carroll. The nonsense is used not as sheer fantasy, but as a way to express the absurdity of reality. It is close enough to reality to be frightening. We cannot laugh at the Jabberwocky, because the nonsensical words strike at the heart of what we most fear, the monsters that come to us in dreams. Watch how Depp recites that poem. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is lost in it. There is a technique here – I believe that – I believe he has a reason for doing every single thing that he does, as an actor. I can picture him working on a role with mirrors alone at home, surrounding himself with reflections so he can see himself, and adjust. Play with different effects, a full-bodied performance, as all of his performances are. There is a rock-hard technique at work in Alice – watch the specificity of it, the choices made. Yet never do I feel Depp’s work to be labored. That is his magic.
He’s on a big playground. He gets to play. The context may change. He is in Roman Polanski’s context in The Ninth Gate, and so his acting adjusts itself accordingly. In Tim Burton’s context, he operates with the same level of commitment and specificity – but he seems to be a different actor entirely.
Mike Nichols has said that one of the defining characteristics of working with Meryl Streep is that she seems to have the attitude of, “Oh, goody – I get to do this again today!” I get that feeling from Depp as well, which is why I think his work has such breadth and joy and feeling in it.
His conception of The Mad Hatter is what matters to me here. He and Tim Burton obviously have a great and close working relationship. I didn’t care for the movie at all, actually. It drove me crazy. But it’s Depp who interests me.
Johnny Depp doesn’t need to be directed. He always knows what movie he is in. It is the keen of sadness in his Mad Hatter that strikes me now. It is a poignant performance. And – beautifully – totally – MAD. This isn’t movie madness. He is actually mad. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is populated by frightening random wackos, who batter Alice about between them. These are not cuddly eccentrics. You feel that they could fly off the handle. You feel that events could spin out of control. And they do. Alice grows, shrinks, grows, shrinks – she is a completely passive participant in this crazy-making world, a terrible metaphor for what can be done to children by the cruel adults surrounding them. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is unwound, totally. He loses track. He can’t concentrate. He goes off into his own flights of fancy, and then comes back to the present moment, with a little tick of loss on his face, like: “what is wrong with me?” The final exchange between he and Alice is a perfect button to this. There is no ulterior motives here, no “sense” – he cannot be explained, or talked down. He is who he is. He is a hatter by trade, and he is stark staring mad. He also loves Alice and has missed her human presence. Instead of coming off as cuddly, however, Depp comes off as, again, a very Buster Keaton-like presence, with a mask of madness, his eyes clicking and thinking and reflecting and deflecting – with an almost total avoidance of sentimentality, and yet with great heart, great potential for feeling.
The contexts in which Johnny Depp can operate are wide and seemingly endless. He doesn’t have many failures under his belt. I know he doesn’t like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, because he was on drugs throughout the shooting – and so Depp has said when he re-watches that film, all he is aware of is how “polluted” he is. This may be the case, but I think his simple belief in that story, that very specific family dynamic, is one of the reasons why it works so well. If he did that cloudy with drugs, then just look at what he is able to do clean and sober.
There is not a lot of explaining that happens with Depp. He has a mystery to him. To me, what is so extraordinary about him is his willingness to submit to as many different contexts as he possibly can.
And so, like a painter, he can point at the canvas of work and say, “There. I put all of it there. There’s nothing more to say about it.”