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.