Sunday 23 July 2017

Depp can waste his millions, but shouldn't squander his talent

He was once seen as Brando's rightful heir, but Johnny Depp's love of gothic whimsy has got the better of him

Out of his Depp: It was recently claimed that the actor had his lines fed to him through an earpiece
Out of his Depp: It was recently claimed that the actor had his lines fed to him through an earpiece

Paul Whitington

When Johnny Deep first broke through in the early 1990s, he was touted as the next Marlon Brando. He even hung out with the great actor after starring with him in the 1994 film Don Juan DeMarco, leading some to assume he was the big man's rightful heir.

Eccentric, eye-catching early performances appeared to bear this theory out: he was entirely convincing as a melancholy artificial man in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands; artfully amusing as an illiterate movie buff in Benny & Joon; commanding as the guardian of a depressed mother and mentally challenged brother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Young Johnny had the chops, it seemed, and anything was possible.

Next week, Depp will return to the big screen in Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge, the fifth instalment of the dull, repetitive and spectacularly banal action franchise.

He's pretty good in it, too, but that's kind of beside the point, because it could be argued that, in career terms, the character of Jack Sparrow as become a millstone around his neck.

When the first Pirates movie was released in 2003, it seemed a welcome and whimsical change of direction for Johnny, a bracing comeback after a relatively quiet few years.

He famously based his drunken, staggering buccaneer Jack Sparrow on the mannerisms of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and defended his performance when anxious Disney boss Michael Eisner saw the rushes and tried to get him kicked off the film. "These are the choices I made," he said. "You know my work. So either trust me or give me the boot."

Depp's instincts were spot on: his comic turn gave the film an edge, and it made almost $700m, giving Depp his first real box-office smash. If only it had stopped there.

Because while Depp's intemperate cockney swagger initially impressed the critics, the more he's returned to the Sparrow role, the more it has begun to seep into his other performances. And the Pirates franchise seems to have sent him down a terminally whimsical path, which involves more and more fantasy roles and fewer and fewer realistic ones.

Since making Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, he has starred in just two films that could be described as grittily realistic: the gangster dramas Public Enemies and Black Mass. Otherwise, it's been Tim Burton fantasies like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, and lots and lots of whimsy, as well as Rango, Dark Shadows, the box-office bomb Lone Ranger and the dire romcom Mordecai.

As he's gotten older, his indelible association with all things gothic and fantastic has removed Depp from the mainstream of Hollywood's leading men to the extent that there are a lot of roles for which he simply would not be considered.

He might think this no bad thing - he's a rock 'n' roller, a rebel, a cinematic artist ploughing his own distinctive furrow. But there's a Peter Pan aspect to Depp's public persona, even a touch of self-parody, that makes the 53-year-old hard to take seriously, and one has the suspicion that he's a much better actor than he's currently allowing himself to be. He certainly used to be.

Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in the summer of 1963, Depp endured an unsettlingly peripatetic childhood, living in as many as 20 different houses across southern America before his family eventually settled in Florida. Depp took up the guitar aged 12, and played in various garage bands before turning to acting in his late teens. He didn't get anywhere at first: brief appearances in films like Platoon and Nightmare on Elm Street led only to a long stint on the rubbishy but popular teen TV drama 21 Jump Street, and a role that might have been played by a hundred other handsome young men.

But Depp was excessively handsome, and had a kind of ethereal quality that wasn't lost on Tim Burton, who plucked him from relative obscurity to star in his 1990 contemporary gothic fantasy Edward Scissorhands. Depp took his chance very seriously, and studied the films of Charlie Chaplin in an effort to figure out how to elicit sympathy without words. He was very good - in fact, you could argue Scissorhands is the best thing he's ever done, and through the mid-1990s Depp blossomed.

His relationship with Tim Burton was especially fruitful, and I loved him as a deluded B-movie maker in the affectionate 1950s biopic Ed Wood, but films like Donnie Brasco proved he was capable of darker, more adult roles. In it, he played an FBI agent who struggles to retain his moral compass when he goes undercover to infiltrate a Mafia gang and grows close to a lowly lieutenant, played by Al Pacino.

A fine actor, Depp was also super cool, all the more so after he settled down with French chanteuse Vanessa Paradis, became a dad and bought a vineyard on the Cote d'Azur. He appeared to have a sense of humour about himself, and turned up on The Fast Show and Extras. For a long time, Johnny was the hip and accessible Hollywood star it was ok to like.

Not any more. The fallout from his separation from Paradis, and brief but spectacularly fractious marriage to American actress Amber Heard, has taken the gloss off his image. When Depp and Heard met on the set of The Rum Diary in 2011, he was 48 and she was 25, a male-female age difference that sounded very predictable, very Hollywood. And though her subsequent allegations of domestic abuse were smoothed over during a costly divorce settlement, they left a bad smell in the air.

Much dirty laundry was aired during the divorce case, which led to the not very startling revelation that Johnny lives like a Venetian doge. Private jets, multiple homes, islands in the Bahamas, a collection of at least 70 guitars: these were all aspects of what Depp would consider normal, everyday life.

After his friend and hero Hunter S Thompson died, Depp spent $3m firing the writer's ashes out of a cannon. His monthly wine bill has been estimated at $30,000, a sum that probably relates to quality, rather than quantity. I don't mind him spending vast amounts on Château Petrus or whatever his tipple of choice is - I'd do the same if I could afford it - and find it hard to blame him for having 10 homes and a flawed private life. It's not easy to keep your head when all around are fawning admiration, and you have to spend your millions on something. But if I were him, I might have tried challenging myself more as an actor. In an ongoing court case with his former management company, it's been alleged that Johnny paid a sound engineer a retainer to feed him his lines so he wouldn't have to bother learning them. Marlon would be proud.

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