<p><i>The Lone Ranger</i> is the best example yet of how Johnny Depp has gone from an eccentric genius to a stale bore. <br></p>
In early 2001, it might have been possible to still take Marilyn Manson seriously. But after January 31, the idea that he was anything but an empty caricature was dead forever. That’s the day The Onion ran a story entitled “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People” that eviscerated the shock-rocker’s shtick for its button-pushing obviousness. Sample excerpt: “That evening, Linda Schmidt was preparing to drive her daughter Alyssa to a Girl Scouts meeting when she found Manson standing on her porch draped in sheep entrails. ‘I knew who he was, but I was kind of busy and didn’t really have time to chat,’ Schmidt said. ‘He just kept standing there staring at me, expecting me to react in some way.’”
The mock news piece brilliantly expressed what had been unsaid but understood by the culture for some time: Manson believed he still frightened people, having no idea how deluded he was.
I keep waiting for Johnny Depp to have a similar awakening. Depp is buddies with Manson—they have even performed together—and they both have oversized public personas. But where Manson’s popularity has waned, Depp’s remains secure. His new movie, The Lone Ranger, may change that, but probably not. That’s unfortunate—especially for him.
Depp, who just turned 50, has been in films for more than half his life. He started his career in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street before transitioning to TV for the cheesy hit 21 Jump Street. But unhappy with being pegged as a teen heartthrob, he’s focused on movies ever since, immediately making it clear that he wanted to do riskier material with idiosyncratic filmmakers such as John Waters (Cry-Baby), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) and Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream). Even when he did conventional romantic comedies like Benny & Joon, he singlehandedly made them interesting, playing a man inspired by Buster Keaton’s elegant, deadpan style.
Plenty of beautiful actors talk about wanting to be taken seriously, but Depp actually had the chops to justify his aspirations. He turned the inept titular director of Ed Wood into a sad, funny, moving figure; he later delivered superb but very different portrayals in the surreal, revisionist Western Dead Man and the sharp mob tale Donnie Brasco. Depp was a classic chameleon who could go from the downbeat young dreamer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to the drug-fueled, bug-eyed paranoia of the Hunter S. Thompson-like narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Where other actors cultivate an air of mystery, Depp managed to seem genuinely cool, forging close friendships with icons like Thompson and Marlon Brando and supporting worthy causes such as the defense of the West Memphis Three. Befitting his rebel image, Depp has trashed hotel rooms, dated supermodels and feuded with the paparazzi, but as he got older he grew out of such outward signs of acting-out. Pushing 40, he remained a heartthrob, but he did his best to stay out of sight, further cultivating an aura of cool mystery while eschewing the bad-boy behavior of his youth.
But over the course of the last decade, he has decided to come out of the shadows. Earlier in his career, Depp had done studio movies like From Hell and Sleepy Hollow, but they were practically art-house fare in comparison to 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster based on the Disneyland ride. It was an unusual choice for him, but his deep investment into his character, the flighty Captain Jack Sparrow, was quintessential Depp. He capped his front teeth gold and gave the character a bumbling, outlandish air. “I was reading about the 18th-century pirates and thought they were kind of like rock stars,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times. And so he decided to base the character around the man he considered the greatest rock ‘n’ roll star of all time: Keith Richards—hence the bandanas and elegantly strung-out behavior.
The outlandish character choices were a total gamble—and when Disney executives starting watching dailies, they were convinced he was ruining the movie. But it turned out to be genius: an unconventional, reluctant star energizing a potentially bloated tent-pole release through sheer will. It’s easy to forget this now, but when the first Pirates came out, there was a certain delighted shock in seeing Depp confidently ham it up as Sparrow: How is this guy getting away with this?
He seemed to be punking the entire Hollywood blockbuster mentality—and cuing his fans in on the joke. (And the friction he got from Disney about his Sparrow portrayal only helped burnish his rebel credentials; as he told the L.A. Times, he gave the studio brass an ultimatum, “Look, these are the choices I made. You know my work. So either trust me or give me the boot.”) Even more amazing, it worked: The film was one of 2003’s biggest hits, and Depp earned his first Oscar nomination, overdue recognition for an actor’s actor who had fully entered the mainstream and lived to tell about it.
For a while, it was a feel-good story—the rebel conquers Hollywood—and maybe if Depp had stopped making movies altogether, it would have stayed that way. It’s not that he’s subsequently given up on subdued, compelling performances—he’s great in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and damn delightful voicing the title character in Rango—but that notion of hiding in plain sight has just about disappeared from his repertoire.
Since 2003, he’s made four Pirates movies but in reality, even when he’s not literally playing Jack Sparrow, he’s still playing him. Sparrow’s heavy makeup, twinkling eyes and twitchy temperament have been mainstays of Depp’s portrayals in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, which were so laden with distracting tics that the characters felt like waxworks gimmicks. And when he tries to go for “restrained” (e.g., Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows) it comes across like a caricature because Depp’s deadpan posturing remains so in-your-face.
For many stars, success can also be something of a prison. Become a big enough A-lister and eventually your uniqueness will become a brand. Tom Hanks is the Everyman. Tom Cruise is Mister Intensity. Julia Roberts is America’s Sweetheart. Since Pirates, Depp seems happy to be the Zany Eccentric, which translates into “Look at the crazy makeup and funny voice I’ve come up with!” It reaches its nadir with his role as Tonto in The Lone Ranger. When the casting was first announced, there were concerns about a white actor playing the iconic (and culturally insensitive) Native American character, despite Depp’s Cherokee heritage. Depp has certainly gone out of his way in the press to insist that it’s a more balanced depiction than the crass “Me scalp’m white man” portrayals of yesteryear. “I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”
A nice thought perhaps, but Depp’s poker-faced Tonto isn’t that different from his Dark Shadows creation: There’s that same reliance on over-determined character mannerisms and Keaton-style reaction shots. Where once there was real sparkle to his inventiveness, Depp’s Tonto feels like a watered-down, photocopied memory of what made him so good in Benny & Joon or Dead Man. No longer blessed with the youthful grace of his early career, Depp doesn’t come across as playful or impish as Tonto—that expressionless face doesn’t suggest deeper levels underneath, just a frozen mask. Depp might have wanted to give Tonto a dignity he’s never enjoyed before, but that still seems to come second to the actor’s unquenchable thirst for rampant play-acting—for amusing himself rather than connecting with an audience.
Read any interview with Depp, and he still sounds as thoughtful as ever—and also just as reticent about stardom. “I still am exactly as I was when I was 16, 17 years old, playing in bars,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was infinitely more prone to be standing outside of the lights and in the darkness, playing my guitar and letting all the attention be up front with the lead singer.” As for his increasingly flamboyant characters, he confessed, “Covering myself up in makeup, it’s easier to look at someone else. … It’s important for your—for whatever’s left of your sanity.”
There’s a real poignancy to that quote—a sense of a guy who’s struggling to reconcile his public and private selves. That’s what makes his recent creative choices all the more exasperating. Rather than wrestling with this tension and crafting art out of it, Depp mostly seems to be repeating a formula that has worked in the past.
Watching Depp gallivant around in The Lone Ranger, desperately trying to wring laughs from strained situations—he and Armie Hammer’s title character are essentially in a buddy-cop Western—it’s hard not to think of that old Onion story. Like Manson, much of Depp’s appeal came from his desire to zig when others would zag, constantly keeping us off-balance with his unpredictable choices. But at 50, Depp now seems to have nowhere else to go. These days, his unpredictability is one of the most tiredly predictable moves in Hollywood.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.