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.