Johnny Depp Is Hollywood’s Essential Weirdo
There’s a funny double narrative popping up around Johnny Depp’s new movie Black Mass. Many are touting it as his “comeback” performance, the return to form of a once-great actor whose praises we have longed to sing once more. (Come back to us, Johnny! we have apparently been screaming). But then there’s this whole other group of commenters dubbing Black Mass the exact opposite. It’s his “don’t-call-it-a-comeback” role, they say. He’s always been a great actor with an unparalleled commitment to his characters so shut your whore mouths! So which is it? Is Johnny Depp “back” or is it that he never left?
The answer is “Who cares?” because it’s entirely subjective. If you condescendingly don’t think Depp has been living up to his potential as a performer in recent years then you’ll call this a comeback, and if you’re a defender of his process and his work ethic no matter how bad the movies got then you’ll say he never left. But once you get past all that arguing you’ll see the most compelling storyline surrounding Depp’s performance in Black Mass is that we are watching just the most recent triumph of the only character actor in Hollywood who can also lay claim to the title of Leading Man.
Look at any other actor getting top billing today and you may see bigger box office returns or more consistently good reviews—George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey—but you won’t see anyone else pulling it off in such a grandly strange way as Depp. Second only to the MoCap King himself, Andy Serkis, no actor has spent more of their career in masks, which makes a lot of sense when you realize he decided a long time ago that being a normal human in the public eye—on-screen and off-—was something he had no interest in.
And consider this: Before his widely (and rightfully) praised turn as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, no movie starring Depp in which he played a person—not a caricature of a person or something entirely non-human all together—has garnered positive reviews since Public Enemies in 2009. And to find the last well-received movie in which he played a character cut from whole cloth, you have to trace all the way back to Finding Neverland from 2004, which was just about the last film before Depp would put the mask on indefinitely.
A Life More Ordinary
All the way back in 1984, Depp was able to kick off a career built around preternatural good looks. He was handsome and yet delicately beautiful at the same time, getting his first role from Wes Craven as a fresh-faced teen in A Nightmare on Elm Street and then parlaying that into a fresh-faced army recruit in Platoon. Both of those movies paired with his role on TV’s 21 Jump Street laid the path for a Clooney-ish arc: A handsome young actor who would surely grow into a distinguished older one surrounded by plenty of Hollywood glitz. But then he met John Waters and, even more importantly, Tim Burton, and everything changed.
From Cry-Baby in 1990 to Ed Wood in 1994, Depp laid the foundation for his eventual commitment to deep quirk. In that four-year span he would put on the façades of a both a greaser and a cross-dressing schlock-cinema director from the 1950s, a humanoid recluse with scissors for hands and a hyper-eccentric wannabe Buster Keaton, and all that was about 20 years before he got really weird.
After those two early team ups with Burton, it’s as if Depp realized playing a boring old person wasn’t for him. But despite his clear comfort behind the protective barrier caricature, after Ed Wood he put the human suit back on and spent about a decade from 1995 to 2005 playing it (mostly) straight. By most conventional measures, this would seem to be the most successful stretch of his career, and probably what those announcing a “comeback” are thinking of when they suggest he’s finally hit his stride again.
Movies like Don Juan DeMarco and Donnie Brasco and Chocolat and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were looked on positively by critics. Others like The Astronaut’s Wife and Nick of Time and Secret Window were not. But, oh well. The success rate was high enough that he could have kept churning out middling romances and equally middling thrillers till the end of time and been just all right. But all that was boring as hell, and when people look back on that stretch of his career it’s his roles as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow and, even more so, as the Hunter S. Thompson proxy Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that audiences really remember. He was always a great actor, but it was only when he got to fall into a cartoon-like persona he really looked like he was having fun, and by the time he would put on Willy Wonka’s purple top hat 2005 his decision to eschew plain-face roles would become the defining move of his career.
The Invisible Johnny Depp
With the exceptions of 1996 and 2002, Depp has shouldered at least one major motion picture every year since 1993. That’s 22 years of being backed by big Hollywood and featured in massive marketing campaigns and paraded around the late-night TV circuit. (So much for being “gone.”) But over that time he has played staggeringly few, well, people. He’s been a Mad Hatter, a zany pirate, a pseudo-human confectioner, a singing wolf, a vampire, a chameleon (actually), a demon barber, a Native American of the old west, and comically outlandish versions of both a French-Canadian legal investigator and a British playboy art-dealer. The man is a living, breathing green screen.
And honestly, it must be really, really weird to be Johnny Depp. Perhaps more than any other actor in Hollywood, no face is more alien than his. We’re so used to seeing him covered in paint or prosthetics that watching Depp play anything requiring his actual face to be shown on screen feels discomfiting and wrong. The only two ordinary characters he’s played in the past decade, Will Caster in Transcendence and Frank Tupelo in The Tourist, each make the case for the Most Boring Performances from any actor in the past 10 years (or maybe even 20; they were bad). It seems the only roles he doesn’t have the stamina for are the ones that ask the least of him.
Those who would get excited for Black Mass as Depp’s emergence from the hell of “paycheck movies” will be horrified to remember that he will reprise his roles as both the Mad Hatter and Captain Jack Sparrow in 2016 and 2017, and he doesn’t have another leading role in an Oscar-baiting picture on the books either. So if Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pirates 4 result in studio write downs or poor reviews, does that mean Johnny Depp was never really back at all? Were we sold a false bill of goods because Black Mass was supposed to be what saved him (re: us) from prolonged professional suicide?
The answer to those questions is, again, “Who cares?” because any performer keeping their name on the marquee by constantly acting their ass off—even if it means they fall on it sometimes—has our blessing. Keep being weird, Johnny, because dressing up as a pirate is no sillier than putting on a cape.
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