It’s his birthday today.
In recent years, he has been taken up/hijacked/ by his personal problems and his terrible misguided marriage and subsequent trial. Before, he was taken up with gargantuan franchises, etc., and some of the clarity of his oddball status had dissipated. I miss oddball Johnny. He may be in the best position right now to “get back” to what made his career special in the first place, although going back is impossible.
But I’m going to talk about him BEFORE. What was striking about him at first, especially as such a pretty boy, was his creativity and the big risks he took. You wouldn’t expect someone like him – a former teen idol – to be so risky in his choices. Like, way WAY out there. Dialogue wasn’t his thing. Physical action WAS. He could be very “mannered”, but it usually looped in to the overall style of the film. He was sensitive to style (a lot of actors are afraid of style, or shy away from it, or do it badly).
If you think back to his earliest days, the risk-taker was there from a start. His youthful soulful beauty was a force to be reckoned with, but he was 1. casual about it, it didn’t seem to interest him, and 2. “meta” about it. It’s not like he wanted to make himself ugly in order to be taken seriously (he has joked that if you ever hear him referring to himself as a “serious actor” please punch him in the face). The looks are a fact of his life, and in something like Cry Baby, the looks were used in almost a camp way, a call-back to 1950s heartthrobs, Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, and Depp was fully aware of what he was doing and referring to, and he consciously participated in the iconography – he understood it. I mean, watch this number:
He didn’t spent his youth as an actor in teeny-bop envelope-thin heart-throb love-interest roles. It was never his thing. He could have made a lot of money playing such roles. But Johnny Depp had a flaw/asset. He had IRONY. Irony is present in everything he does.
Edward Scissorhands shifted the perception of him for all time.
Okay. So … he’s a WEIRDO. Got it. He’s almost a throwback to the silent era. Full-body expressiveness, unafraid of being presentational, broad, but always with the lightest of touches.
I love Fear and Loathing. When Hunter said he wanted his ashes to be blown out of a cannon, he tapped Johnny Depp to do it. Because Depp was so “out there” he’d actually DO it. And he did.
I love Blow. I adore Ed Wood and Dead Man and Donnie Brasco.
I felt like I hadn’t written much about him, but a quick search shows me I have, a couple of them those in-depth actor-persona type things I used to do all the time here. Here are some links:
I wrote this big long thing about Depp as the Mad Hatter. I didn’t care for the movie but his performance gave me a lot to think about, and I had a lot to say – about him, in general, as an actor. So the Mad Hatter performance is discussed, but it’s more about Depp’s sensitivity to context.
I absolutely loved Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. I wasn’t aware this was a controversial opinion, at least among cinephiles. A lot of people had issues with the look of the film. But what interests me is the performances and how those performances tell the story. Johnny Depp as John Dillinger was doing what I have called “blank” acting, and it’s one of my favorite things to talk about and to try to parse out and discuss. Actors who are able to divest themselves of normal emotional apparatus due to the character they’re playing, actors who are able to empty themselves out of typical human emotions, if warranted. John Dillinger was not a complicated man and Public Enemies presents him pretty straight.
Actors like to add things. It’s part of the actor’s job, to fill things in. But Public Enemies not only didn’t require this, it would have hurt it. Johnny Depp’s opaque performance, blank, almost flat-affect is the opposite of “filled in”. It’s more like he was literally playing an animal, an animal trying to get its needs met in uncomplicated ways. This is hard to do. Try it yourself and see. Try not to feel much. Anyway, I won’t go on and on, because I go on and on … and ON … in the piece I wrote about it. I love his performance.
And finally: a piece YEARS in the making – about a virtually un-seeable film called Arizona Dream (yes, it is on DVD but the film was so butchered I cannot recommend you watching it) – which I saw during its 5-day run at the Chicago Art Institute back in the mid-90s and I have never been able to get it out of my mind. Sometimes the full version shows up on YouTube. See that one. It’s a magical film and he is great in it. I wrote about Arizona Dream for my column at Film Comment.
Embroiled in controversies over the last five years, which have depleted him physically and emotionally, manipulated and lied about and silenced, there is much good will out there towards him. People say “Believe victims.” Well, I do. If you get my drift. He also clearly has substance abuse issues but aren’t we supposed to be sympathetic towards these and not look at them as character flaws but maybe a disease?
Depp is a relatively young man. He is a character actor in the body of a leading man. I would love to see him collab again with Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton … the directors who understand him. The blockbusters are fine, and he brings something weird and inventive to the table, but I’d love to see him in something smaller, lower stakes, where he can be set free. Johnny Deep set free is a “thing of beauty and a joy forever.”
I’ll leave you with this. Here’s a beautiful and sad video of Depp reading the letters he received from HST. I love it.