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Can Johnny Depp’s Career Be Saved?

What the onetime media darling can learn from Nicole Kidman

Johnny Depp turned 50 this year, and to celebrate, he made a big, groaning dump truck of a movie that blew out its own candles and practically disappeared from public consciousness before its first weekend was over. The truth is that neither the birthday nor the bomb is fatal. When a failure as thoroughgoing as The Lone Ranger comes rumbling down the tracks, and everybody but the benighted souls who green-lit it have had 17 years (literally, they started talking about this one in 1996) to brace for impact, nobody’s really punished, least of all its leading men. One black eye doesn’t mandate movie jail for a star like Depp; as for Armie Hammer, he’ll get to go back to being the deft and promising actor we liked in The Social Network (and even in J. Edgar) and discover that there are worse fates than missing your chance to become a huge slab of processed Ken-doll blockbuster lunch meat. Gore Verbinski may have a little less money to play with next time, but that’s a step in the right direction too. Even the film itself may find a future life — in foreign markets, on cable, in click-through galleries with titles like “28 Attempted Franchises That Didn’t Work,” or in contrarian critical reconsiderations.

As I’ve written before, all stars have flops, and real stars survive them. They also survive the aging process. For an actress, it’s more challenging: Turning 50 is a complicated moment at which women are suddenly presented with a wide new range of opportunities to play Johnny Depp’s mother. But for Depp, the half-century mark doesn’t have to jolt him out of his groove any more than it will disrupt the very different mojos (moji?) of Brad Pitt or Nicolas Cage, both of whom will join Depp in Club 50 in the next few months.

That’s too bad, because Depp could use some jolting. After 30 years in the public eye, a number of hits, and three Best Actor Academy Award nominations, he’s in an uncharacteristic position: Suddenly (or, like Hemingway’s description of going broke, gradually and then suddenly) a large number of people have become fed up with him. It’s not that The Lone Ranger was the last straw; it’s that it felt like the 15th last straw in a row. And people who have come to view Depp as an actor in a rut of his own design seemingly had their suspicions confirmed when, last month, he walked away from a great and potentially revivifying challenge — the role of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger — reportedly because he wouldn’t lower his $23 million asking price to make the mid-budget film.

It’s bad for an actor when stuff like that leaks,1 because it fuels a whole series of narratives that it’s essential for aging A-listers like Depp to avoid. $23 million? Come on. How much is enough for an actor who’s worth so much that his unborn grandchildren are already set for life? He’s greedy, he’s lazy, he’s cautious, he doesn’t want to live outside his comfort zone, and his comfort zone is some chateau in France that he never ventures away from unless the guest mansion needs a new wing or the jet requires refurbishing, in which case he’ll either call Tim Burton and say what’s up, or take Jack Sparrow’s do-rag out of Disney storage, mumble through one more louche reprise, and, for his minimal efforts, cynically pocket a check that dwarfs the lifetime earnings of 99.9 percent of his audience.

When moviegoers start narrativizing actors’ lives this way, it’s usually out of frustration, and even hurt feelings, as unwarranted as they may be: The one thing for which it’s hard to forgive a star is lack of interest, and the harshest current rap on Depp is that sometime after Pirates of the Caribbean: Irritating Blobby Subtitle, he just stopped caring.

Johnny Depp

I‘d like to posit both that this is a deeply unfair characterization and that Depp deserves a large chunk of blame for making it possible. To understand why, jump back to the moment a decade ago when he seemed to be at the apex of his promise, with back-to-back Oscar nominations for a pair of roles that showcased two of his most appealing qualities: his range, and his commitment to making the most of any assignment. It’s easy to forget now how subversive his fey, slurry, weird, self-amused, femme-y, altogether huge performance as Jack Sparrow was in the first Pirates installment; this was, after all, a Disney2 family movie based on a freaking amusement-park ride, a gig that practically invited an actor to hit his marks as generically as possible. Instead, Depp brought energy and imagination to the table; he was something it’s almost impossible to be when you’re at the center of a summer blockbuster: unexpected. One year later, he starred as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, a lovely movie whose Anglophilic Miramax laminate makes it easy to dismiss, but if you doubt that Depp earned his second Oscar nomination, go back and watch his understated, emotionally precise, delicate, and human performance. The two films seemed to suggest that Depp was on the verge of broadening the definition of a Hollywood leading man: He could go big or small, but he would never be bland and always find a sweet spot that was just off-center. He could wink when winking was useful, he would never let gesture or mannerism get in the way of honesty, even when, as with Sparrow, he was playing a doodle rather than a human being. All that from a guy who had started at the unpromising intersection of Jump and Elm streets. No wonder we loved him.

Perhaps it was unfair for anyone to expect Depp to keep striving upward and to continue to exceed expectations. (“Surprise me like you did the last time!” is a burdensomely paradoxical demand to make of a star.) But instead, over the decade that followed, he seemed to grow strangely attached to the wrong qualities in his own work, as if what had really interested him about Pirates and Neverland were the eye makeup and velveteen. In the last 10 years or so, fully half of the movies he has made have been either for Verbinski or Burton, and while loyalty is an especially honorable quality in movie stars (since they’re never penalized for not having it), both collaborations have yielded diminishing returns. To look at his high-profile roles from this period — Jack Sparrow again and again and again (with the next “again” scheduled for July 10, 2015), Barnabas Collins, the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka — is to study the résumé of an actor with the world’s most profligate addiction to pancake makeup (and also, more problematically, to characters he can construct from the outside rather than inhabit).

I think the man-of-a-thousand-chalky-faces route that Depp has taken connects to something deeper and perhaps more problematic about his instincts. More than any major actor out there, Depp doesn’t want you to know him, or to see his face. Probably because of his early association with Burton, he has always been in love with exposing the small within the large; as early as Edward Scissorhands, he discovered that he had a particular talent for creating characters who don’t look human, then adorning them with tiny gestures of poignancy, irony, vulnerability, or wit. It’s an interesting combination of showiness and minimalism — miniaturist work that’s encased in elaborate visuals that make the degree to which he’s “stretching” external and explicit. Repeated too often, it can come to look like a trick, or a crutch. But for Depp, it may also be a means of avoiding exposure. (It’s probably not an accident that in Ed Wood he gives one of his best performances, as an unreadable guy who feels most at home when he’s wearing someone else’s clothes.) Maybe he feels the disguises let him act, but sometimes it feels like the disguises are doing the acting. Certainly, he has come to seem ill at ease on the increasingly rare occasions when he’s scrubbed clean. His one recent stab at playing a normal guy, opposite Angelina Jolie in the largely cruddy thriller The Tourist, was, frankly, awful — a star portrayal of “ordinary” that was so fussy it suggested he’d forgotten what actual human beings are like.

To me, Depp’s most interesting work of late was as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s drama Public Enemies; the movie was not entirely successful, but Depp, stripped of the facial grotesquerie that he increasingly seems to use as a shield, delivered a tense, alert, thinking-on-his-feet performance that served as a welcome reminder of his creativity, resourcefulness, and ambition. And that was just four years ago. So let’s assume that just about all of the current indictments of Depp are false. Lazy? No. He’s made as many movies in the last dozen years as Nicole Kidman, who seems to work all the time. Greedy? No. All stars like getting paid, but Depp certainly didn’t make The Rum Diary or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to get rich. Cautious? Come on. The guy can’t really sing, and still took on Sweeney Todd.

But let’s linger on caution for a moment, and go back to Kidman. It’s a fair comparison — she’s just four years younger than Depp, which means Hollywood sees her as four years older than Depp, and over the last dozen years, she’s managed to work for Lars von Trier, Philip Kaufman, Park Chan-wook, Baz Luhrmann, Lee Daniels, John Cameron Mitchell, Nora Ephron, Noah Baumbach, Anthony Minghella, and Robert Benton. The movies have been hit-and-miss, but her hunger to put herself at risk in the service of talented artists is undeniable, and admirable.

That’s what Johnny Depp used to have, and what he seems to have lost. In 1997, John Waters approvingly referred to him as an “auteur hag” — an actor who was interested in working with filmmakers who would offer him high dives, not safety nets. That’s the Depp we want back. Yes, he might have been all wrong for Whitey Bulger, and that’s exactly why he should have jumped at the role. Playing Bulger would have required him to inhabit an ordinary-looking middle-aged man. And if he could have avoided the temptation of abundant facial prosthetics — a form of vanity — and simply offered us the shock of whatever he actually looks like these days (has he gone gray? Is his hairline receding? Has his jawline softened? Will we ever know?), the result could have been the kind of tough, self-challenging performance that made us love him in the first place. Instead … well, judgment should probably be withheld. Depp is currently working for Christopher Nolan’s fine cinematographer Wally Pfister, who is making his directorial debut with a sci-fi-ish thriller called Transcendence. (Who knows? Let’s root for it.) He’ll follow that with Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, in which he’ll play the Wolf. It’s a supporting role that will, I fear, allow him to offer up the kind of rococo, air-quotey, makeup-heavy star turn of which his wheelhouse is now built. Fangs and fur and furbelows and curlicues.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that, because I love the idea of Depp in Into the Woods, but I wish a different part had attracted him: He should be playing the Baker, the ordinary, melancholy, sympathetic schlub at the center of the story — a rich and beautiful part that would offer him nothing to hide behind. And Depp doesn’t need to hide. As vexed as his relationship with moviegoers has become, his talent isn’t in question, just his taste for self-protective ornamentation. Who is that masked man? We already know. Now let’s see what’s underneath.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Johnny Depp