Rewatching ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ last night, I reflected on how there are great actors and there are great stars yet there are very few great acting stars but that Johnny Depp is the brightest of that few.
In fact, I would go on to say that it’s hard to think of any screen presence of the last fifty years who matches Depp in acting range and star quality. Hoffman made some memorable movies, brought life to strange roles, but his star was never as bright as Depp’s. Brad Pitt is a great movie star but even acting at his best he has never brought such personality to his roles. He’s a big star but he’s no acting great. River Phoenix was in the same mould as Depp and might have offered a challenge had drugs not robbed us of his talent. At a stretch, the closest to Depp I can think of is Richard Burton but he perhaps owed too much of his star quality to Elizabeth Taylor and his acting legacy suffered from choosing too many poor roles and sad creep of alcoholism.
Yet even should you find an actor with the same range and quality, they’re probably missing that third ingredient which Depp brings to his roles and that’s a force of likability like no other.
All of which makes it sad that in recent years, the old Johnny Depp seems to have disappeared. There’s a shadow on our screens that looks and sounds like Depp but has been turned into a marionette by corporate America. He is the Disney puppet, the A list bank note that the billionaires cash in at the booth where the public buy their tickets. When his star was at its brightest, after the second or third Pirates of the Caribbean, it was rumoured that Depp wouldn’t return at Captain Jack. I rejoiced at the news but it never happened. After a couple of films that performed weakly at the box office, he’s came back as Captain Jack. Now he’s lined up to make Pirates 5, perhaps time to ask: where has the real Johnny Depp gone?
I remember discovering Johnny Depp for the first time when I saw Edward Scissorhands, a film so unusual that I thought the future of Hollywood would be so different. It was small in scale but big in ideas. Everything about the film was perfect but holding it all together was an actor who was not simply likable. He was lovable. He was the alienated kid who deserved everybody’s friendship. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s that likability that Depp possesses in streaks. I think of his sublime performance in ‘Ed Wood’, making an unsympathetic character so very sympathetic. His finest moment was playing Raoul Duke in ‘Fear and Loathing’, his comic turn holding the deliberately wild mess together. Yet he has often done the same in lesser films where I grew to like his quirk, his lack of gravitas, the off centre kilter he brought to every role he played. Yet the quality of his résumé is easy to underappreciate: he was great for Polanski in ‘The Ninth Gate’ and as J.M. Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland’. ‘From Hell’ is a great adaptation of the graphic novel and then there’s ‘Donnie Brasco’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, and the majestic ‘Sweeney Todd’.
Two of those remind us that he has always remained loyal to Burton but the under-funny ‘Dark Shadows’ was a missed open goal, a great premise but they needed somebody who could write witty one liners to cast an eye over the inadequate script. It was a reminder that somewhere Depp stopped being Depp. ‘The Tourist’ was a waste of all talents involved and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was good but uninspired.
Yet looking down his list of films in this way, you begin to realise that Depp hasn’t gone as missing as much as we might have at first thought. Except for two years, 2010 and 2012, he has usually produced something of interest every year. If anything, this slight lapse has meant that he has simply become too synonymous with one movie franchise. In recent years, he still made ‘The Rum Diary’, based on the Thompson novel and perhaps closer to Depp’s heart. His new film, ‘The Lone Ranger’, looks loud, quirky, perhaps interesting (I’ve yet to see it), even if it seems to sit fat and heavy in the mainstream.
I think a lot rests on his next two films. He’s currently filming ‘Transcendence’, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, better known as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer. Then Depp is making ‘Mortdecai’ with David Koepp, who previously directed him in the underrated ‘Secret Window’ in 2004 (a great movie if you love movies about writers). These two films are chance to remind us of the old Depp before the next Pirates movie and then a rumoured sequel to 'Alice in Wonderland'.
For Depp fans, this is a key moment. I want the old Depp to come back and surprise me. I would like to see him work for Woody Allen or Scorsese, filmmakers that would let him inhabit a character in the way that became his trademark. I know that interesting Depp is still around. Perhaps his Keith Richards documentary will be the restart of his directorial career, prematurely abandoned after his one effort at the helm, 'The Brave'. That Depp took time to help make the Ralph Steadman documentary which is due out sometime this year. Perhaps these are signs that Depp is currently that rare thing in any profession: a person who can choose his destiny. If $20 million roles means that he can play games in the margins, then there might be something to be said about continuing with the Pirates films. But at the moment, I’m waiting to see that Depp re-emerge. He’s been a little too quiet recently and he’s been sorely missed.