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Johnny Depp: An Appreciation

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For the past couple of years my wife and I have been unable to share a bedroom. Due to both of us having a variety of health issues, our sleeping patterns are such that it would be torture for anyone sharing a bed with either one of us. As a loving husband I thought it my duty to ensure her some sort of compensation for her loss of companionship.

On the outer side of my bedroom door, which when placed on a particular angle she can look at from her bed, is a large full colour poster of Johnny Depp in complete Captain Jack pirate regalia. Each night as I go to bed I have the reassurance of knowing that someone is looking out for my wife. She of course gets to fall into dreams of dashing pirates whisking her away on adventures.

Johnny Depp is one of the few actors around who could have rescued a mediocre Disney movie like Pirates of the Caribbean through the strength of performance and personality alone. Like Viggo Mortensen in Hidalgo, without him it would have just been another formulaic flick that had no reason for existence save making Disney a few more bucks. I still wish I could have seen the frozen grins on executive’s faces when they saw the first dailies of good old Jack. Oh to have been a fly on the wall that day!

Some people may not be able to appreciate the good Captain properly so maybe a little history lesson is in order. If you go back in time about twenty five years ago to the end of the eighties and earlier, to the first days of Fox’s intrusion onto the public airways you’ll remember, or not, the teen hit Twenty-One Jump Street, young, hip cops infiltrating high schools to break up trouble.

Sort of a Just Say No to Drugs version of the Mod Squad, it featured a very young Johnny Depp in the lead role. He was being moulded into a forerunner of Jason Priestly and Luke Perry by producers desperate for the publicity a teen idol can generate. Covers of Tiger Beat and Teen featured his brooding face for the run of the show as they tried to define his career for him.

But in 1990 he took the step that would set him irrevocably down a path from which there would be no return. He took a roll in the John Waters movie Cry Baby satirizing the very pretty boy-tough guy image that the studios had made for him. Once you play opposite Divine there’s no going back. There would be no more Tiger Beat covers for Johnny.

After a couple of roles in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise he was again in the spotlight for his first teaming with Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands. His depiction of the strange puppet creation of Vincent Price marked the beginning of what has become the distinguishing mark of his career: the ability to make the outlandish outsider sympathetic and acceptable in our eyes.

No matter the character, no matter the situation, there is never the slightest hint of him stepping out of the role to share a wink with the audience at the expense of his creation. There is a feeling that Mr. Depp would, if the opportunity presented itself, upon meeting these people on the street, treat them with the utmost respect and deference. This turns what could have been a caricature into a human being.

If verification of this is wanted one only need look to the time he portrayed a real person in Blow. Our stereotyped vision of what a big time cocaine dealer is supposed to be like is dealt a severe blow in Johnny’s powerful portrayal of George Jung. He takes us behind the facade of wealth and parties, pretty women and luxuries that the script depicts.

In the hands of a lesser actor this could have been just a tamer version of Scarface. Drug lord starts out, drug lord makes big, drug lord falls. Instead we see the human being behind the shades. As the realization sets in that his marriage is as loveless as his parent’s was, and all the money and power won’t change that, we see something wither in his eyes.

In an interview included on the DVD version of Blow Jung talks about seeing himself warts and all on the screen. He thanked Johnny for not glamorising the life, and for having the integrity to not judge while depicting him, but just playing it straight. The audience are left to make their own decision based on Johnny’s abilities as an actor.

Someone once said of Gene Hackman that no matter what kind of creep he was playing in a movie he would always find a way to love his character. This ability allows him to offer the most honest of portrayals possible. Johnny takes this trait and adds the caveat of “there but for the grace of God go I”. With the possible exception of Edward (and even there maybe) his characters all suggest the potential that exists for any of us to have turned out the same given the circumstances.

When we saw Pirates of the Caribbean in the theatre two summers ago and Johnny Depp made his first appearance on screen my wife’s voice could be heard ringing out across the audience: “Holy F…!” The titters of laughter that echoed in response was more than enough to signify that he still maintains the ability to turn heads with his looks and magnetism.

But unlike others he resisted the temptation of the easy route of becoming a “star”. Ironically it was this very refusal that has led to him becoming one of today’s more celebrated actors. As his depiction of J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland proves, he does not need the outlandish to create a unique individual. Even more unusual is his ability to made the outlandish into an universal that all will find familiar.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    This is a very interesting and insightful look at Depp’s career, gypsyman. I, too, have long admired his refusal to play the Hollywood game in favor of choosing interesting and offbeat roles. He certainly could have cashed in on his looks, but I do appreciate the path he’s taken instead.

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    One of the most underrated actors of this generation. He can make a bad film enjoyable (The Ninth Gate)

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    gypseyman, great work. I respect Mr. Depp’s talent as an actor greatly. You do him justice. I will not ruin this excellent bit of writing by discussing other aspects of Mr. Depp’s life and philosophy that give me pause in more completely appreciating his screen work. I am, suffice it to say, not a “fan” of Mr. Depp, but I certainly do appreciate his skills as you have described them.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • Marie

    This is a great piece of work, I have been a big fan of Johnnys for a long time, it,s really good to see some one else appreciate him, and his work.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Depp also has the ability to take a supporting role (as he did in Chocolat) and embue it with all the power he brings to a star turn, without “stealing” the show. Like dietdoc, I may not agree with Depp anywhere else, but onscreen, he deserves the utmost respect.

  • http://@yahoo.com Brittany

    I love Johnny Depp he is the sexiest man alive.

  • Mitzi

    Johnny Depp is one of the finest actors ever to hit the silver screen. He does his characters the way he knows they should be done and he does not compromise or sell out. He has everything it tales to be a star but doesn’t care about that-only the work. I celebrate him as a fine actor and a wonderful person.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    I liked him better when no one really knew who he was. Damn that Pirates!

  • Deppaholic

    Johnny is such a great actor, that he doesn’t even have to say much to convey everything about his character. In “Edward Scissorhands,” for example, he spoke ONLY 169 words, in total. What other actor could pull that off!?!

    And didn’t he just STEAL the show in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” I was far more interested in what Agent Sands was up to, then El Mariachi’s agenda.

    And who else but Mr. Depp could make a fey pirate and an eccentric choclatier so incredibly hot and memorable?????

    Johnny Rules!!!!!!!

  • QueenGonzo

    Yes, Johnny Depp is unbelievably talented.

  • Mark the Sane and Sensible

    Johnny Depp is an annoying Hollyweird pseudo-activist who lives in his palatial digs in France and bashes the US at every opportunity, never getting his hair mussed and pretty face dinged in the process. His comments prove that actors should shut up and continue doing what they do best, play make believe, because they have NO grip on reality.

  • IgnatiusReilly

    “His comments prove that actors should shut up and continue doing what they do best, play make believe, because they have NO grip on reality.”

    You mean like Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston? Or is it only actors you disagree with?

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com alienboy

    Mark the “Sane” and “Sensible”, posts like yours simply ruin a nice convo.

    Please keep your personal hatred to yourself and try to remain on subject. This is an appreciation of somebody’s work not a political piece…

  • Sick of Him

    Johnny Depp is overrated.

  • http://spokanewa scott alan

    what about benny & june, I know a lady that lives In a house that parts of the movie was filmed in. Everytime I see the house I think of his unforgettable genious.