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?