What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Three) — The Bad, the Brave and the ‘Beautiful’

Actor Johnny Depp at 50

We left off a while back, in our appraisal of actor Johnny Depp’s cinematic output, with comments concerning some of his more (ahem) “eclectic” screen performances. Continuing with our reflections on his art, we pick up the thread with a series of film forays from the late 1990’s.

Making Sense of It All

Having made a name for himself not only as a leading man but as a quirky and versatile character player, it will come as no surprise to fans that the dark-haired, dark-eyed Johnny — the physical embodiment of that oft-abused term “dreamboat” — has attracted his share of controversy with respect to the opposite sex.

A short-lived marriage to makeup artist Lori Anne Allison, for example, lasted all of two years; his various associations with attractive young starlets, among them Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn, and especially Winona Ryder — responsible for that “Winona Forever” tattoo on Johnny’s forearm, later surgically modified to “Wino Forever” — have led to less than amicable breakups; and his four-year, on-again/off-again liaison with supermodel Kate Moss culminated in angry outbursts, incidents of misbehavior, suspected drug-abuse, and a notorious New York hotel trashing.

Never one to let a good brawl go to waste, Depp, like so many artists before and after him, used those heated exchanges as grist for the acting mill. Unlike most heartthrobs of the period, Johnny consistently steered his film assignments in a direction opposite to that which one would have expected him to take, accepting any number of out-of-the-way roles, with nary a thought given to the potential downside of things.

“I mean, all those films [i.e., Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco] didn’t do well at the box office,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in November 2011. “But I still had paparazzi chasing my tail … Everywhere you went you were on display. It was always some strange attack on the senses; I was never able to embrace it. So self-medication,” a phrase interpreted by the Guardian to mean “drink and drugs,” or Johnny’s way of dealing with the situation.

His reputation as a partier and self-destructive mischief-maker has preceded him. However, according to Depp, in an Access Hollywood interview from 1997, it was predicated upon what individuals supposedly heard and read, something columnists have “written about and that has turned into fiction. Now that fiction is something I have to carry around with me, and it’s based on rumor, it’s based on lies. So it’s not the worst thing in the world, but a bit of a drag to have to live with that.”

One comes away from this self-analysis with the impression that Depp doesn’t go after fame for fame’s sake, which in this day and age (where the focus is on “me, me, me”) is quite a refreshing viewpoint and very much apart from those of other celebrities.

Don’t Be a Wiseguy

Depp with Al Pacino in ‘Donnie Brasco’

By now, spurning the predictable in Hollywood had become an all-consuming passion for the certifiably dependable mega-star Mr. Depp. For starters, one of his brashest performances yet came with Al Pacino, a childhood method-acting idol of his, who co-starred with him in British director Mike Newell’s potent crime drama, Donnie Brasco (1997).

As FBI informant Joe Pistone, who poses as apprentice wiseguy Donnie B, Johnny D is tapped by the Feds to penetrate the inner workings of organized crime — specifically, to pass himself off as a loyal friend and able ally to a low-level mobster named Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino). It’s a story about conflicting loyalties, of the rise of up-and-coming hood Donnie Brasco and the fall of down-and-out hit man Lefty.

The main thrust of the picture, though, inasmuch as it can be compared to Depp’s previous entries, is the relationship of the title character to Pacino’s Lefty persona, i.e., that of the streetwise old mentor passing along his expertise and insider know-how to a younger generation of hoods. This closely parallels (if not exactly replicates) the bond of friendship that existed between no-talent, eager-beaver Ed Wood and the washed-up, drug addicted Bela Lugosi.

Pacino is wonderfully low-key here, a welcome reprieve from such frothing-at-the-mouth permutations as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface or John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate. His and Johnny’s scenes are perfectly timed character studies of two men torn between the demands of their violent profession and the shared feelings they have for one another.

In Donnie’s case, it’s his concern for the safety of his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and their three children (“This job is eating me alive,” he confesses to her. “I can’t breathe anymore”), played off against his duties as a squealer, which is further complicated by his possible “rat” status vis-à-vis his pal Lefty, a fellow incorrigible he’s grown to love and respect.

Donnie feels sympathy for the racketeer and personally responsible as well for Lefty’s vouching for his reputation to the underworld bosses. There are future hints of the HBO series The Sopranos in several of the film’s sequences — most conspicuously, those involving Donnie’s strained relationship to his family.

Not to be too dismissive, I feel I may be painting too warm and fuzzy a picture of the project, so let me call a spade a spade: this is a graphically violent and unremittingly bleak portrait of mob life at its most abhorrent. A viable companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s equally nefarious Goodfellas, which preceded it by a good seven years, the film has a soft-spot for its protagonists as well as moments of genuine levity.

Just Be Brave!

Depp as The Brave (entertainment.ca.msn.com)

Depp as ‘The Brave’ (entertainment.ca.msn.com)

Moments of genuine levity were clearly absent from Johnny’s next venture, the independently produced and financed filming of The Brave (1997). At the time of the movie’s release, the L.A. Times published an article, “The Sad, Strange Journey of Johnny Depp’s ‘The Brave,’” outlining the troubled gestation of this peculiarly bizarre production.

As Depp’s one and only directorial effort to date, The Brave was based on a book by Gregory McDonald. It’s overarching theme — that of a Native American in poor financial straits who, wishing only to help his impoverished family, decides to appear in a “snuff” film for the sum of $50,000 — was a shade too dark even by Hollywood standards, especially after it was learned the original director Aziz Ghazal, who had optioned the rights to McDonald’s novel, murdered his estranged wife and daughter prior to killing himself.

With a back story like that, who in their right mind would come within 50 feet of such a prospect? Who indeed: “I didn’t particularly like it,” Johnny remarked upon hearing the producers’ pitch. “But I liked the idea of sacrifice for family. I felt driven to do this movie. It just about ripped me to shreds. And I kept thinking of things I’d like to add.”

Feeling the timing was right, Depp, who could’ve had his pick of the lot as far as film roles go, rewrote the script with his brother D.P., then put up enough of his own funds to guarantee that any cost overruns would be covered. Not only that, but he retained total control of the work, a rarity in La-La-Land; he even got his friend, actor Marlon Brando — a well known Indian rights activist in his day — to work alongside him as the “spiritual sadist” who pays and tortures the Native American for the snuff film (we shudder at the thought).

It would be unfair of me to pass judgment on this sincere if totally misguided effort, since the film itself has never been released in the U.S., and yours truly has never seen it. And to be honest, I don’t think I ever will. Although The Brave had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — reportedly to scathing reviews and a mixed reception combining boos with a standing ovation — tales of its sickening contents had already reached these shores.

And the bad news was … Well, to quote New York Times journalist Chris Wallace, the movie “isn’t terrible, exactly — it’s not good.” Huh. Not much of a wholehearted endorsement, is it? Still, any project that includes the high-cheek-boned artist in the guise of a Native American, which he himself has claimed to be a descendant of (Cherokee, on his grandmother’s side I believe … or is it Creek?), is worth the proverbial once-over. More than that, I dare not say.

Now, Go Get Stoned!!!

Certainly the most “elastic” (heh, heh) if not the lithest accomplishment in Johnny’s expanding catalog of wigged out screen parts came in ex-Monty Python animator turned producer-director Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from 1998.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ with Benicio del Toro & Johnny Depp

Depp’s twitchy, weirdly accurate portrayal of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s questionable sixties lifestyle (in alter-ego Raoul Duke), taken from Thompson’s outrageous roman à clef — replete with ginormous aviator glasses, fisherman’s cap and bald noggin — is considered by many to be one of the actor’s more, uh, “defining” moments.

His transformation into a human lizard, one that prefigures his later motion-capture work for Gore Verbinski’s Rango, was uncanny. It wasn’t so much the loopy outfits he wore throughout but the spastic contortions, the Groucho-esque stoop, and those back-and-forth limb movements that seemed most germane to said creature’s behavioral patterns. (Shiver me timbers, mate, did I detect a touch of Jack Sparrow in his step?)

Half man, half chameleon, to be exact. Indeed, this is what set his performance off from anything Johnny had attempted before, the sheer audacity of it — now, if he could only stay still. Not even dear old Edward Scissorhands could compare to this cartoon car-wreck of an individual.

After befriending the real-life Thompson and picking up as much of his voice, traits and mannerisms as his four-month stay in the writer’s home would allow, Depp went before the cameras to deliver not just a skillful impersonation but a full-fledged caricature of Homo sapiens in a continuous haze, the drug-addled embodiment of British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s superb line drawings from the original novel.

Johnny’s gift for mimicry, which manifested itself early on with Benny & Joon, in this picture, took wing and was set to overdrive. In fact, he managed to capture the writer’s clipped delivery — a torrent of verbal hemorrhaging Thompson was well-versed in; along with that stop-and-go facet of his volatile personality. Not for nothing, but here was a man whose mental stability was dangling on the edge of a cliff, a frazzled reporter supposedly on assignment for his magazine who spends the entirety of the picture’s running time in a perpetual state of blissful unawareness.

Depp as Hunter S. Thompson (alysonwonder.tumblr.com)

Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson (alysonwonder.tumblr.com)

There are visions of giant bats, a literal gathering of lounge lizards, and unhealthy dollops of debauched behavior — all of it, mind you, photographed in visually arresting colors, with varying degrees of damaged décor strewn about the set, as well as sonically assaulting soundscapes. The aura of late 1960’s Vegas is recreated by Gilliam’s omnipresent fisheye lens, indicative of his subject’s skewed vision of the surreal.

On the whole, Johnny’s Duke is a brilliantly conceived achievement, but to what end — and to what purpose? To dramatize the more lurid aspects of Thompson’s distorted opinions of American values gone sour? Ah, ’tis a ponderous piece! Mr. Gilliam’s film, similar in style to his other major works (e.g., Brazil and The Fisher King), owes as much to the writings of William Burroughs, too, a contemporary of Thompson’s. But why does the director have to bludgeon his audiences over the head with every film frame? That’s a question that remains unanswered.

Co-starring Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a stand-in for Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta (a more witless and gruff version of the so-called “loyal” sidekick), along with an all-star complement of supporting players, among them Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Michael Jeter, Harry Dean Stanton, Jenette Goldstein, and the voice of Debbie Reynolds (don’t ask). And let’s not forget Christina Ricci (who we’ll meet again in Sleepy Hollow) as the acid-tripped Lucy.

In our humble estimation, Depp could never be accused of wanting to play it safe, no sirree! From the borrowed L.L. Bean shorts to the Butte sheepherder’s coat, his Duke is as authentic as they come, right down to the protruding cigarette filter dangling precariously from his lips — all courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson himself, who makes a brief cameo appearance, as if that made any difference.

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

When the Legend Becomes Fact — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Two): Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and the Lone Gunman Theory

Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK

Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK

“Let There Be Light” – And Let Us Be Illuminated By It

Continuing with my rumination on a course I once developed concerning Hollywood and the Historical Film, exactly how much history and how much fiction does one include in such an undertaking? On the flip side of the issue, is there anything we may wish to exclude?

Questions of this nature pose a perplexing problem for the instructor, in that the focus of the course is placed exclusively on the limitations and uses of available sources. And a lot is riding on those same sources!

For example, one can turn to the Bible, a primary source for many people’s moral and ethical guidance, and ask the obvious question: “Is the Bible history, and can it be used to teach history?” First and foremost, such a query must take into account matters of fact, faith and fiction, in addition to myths, legends and the all-important religious interpretation of events.

This is a delicate subject to broach with students because it goes to the very core of their belief system and upbringing. Inside an academic setting, it’s a perfectly valid form of inquiry and well within the reasonable. But outside academia’s hallowed halls, one must tread lightly so as not to offend those same beliefs. Therefore, let us proceed with caution.

To begin our analysis, what should one make of the frequent parables present throughout the Biblical narrative? For one thing, we can say that parables, as told by various individuals — Christ primarily — in both the Old and New Testament, serve the purpose of putting a potentially difficult topic or principle into simple, everyday terms. This was done so that the average layperson might understand and absorb their lessons.

Are there ways we can tell how much of what is being conveyed via parables is truth, exaggeration, verbal embellishment or other such extravagance? If by that question one is referring to “fact checking,” that would be a physical impossibility, considering that, for one, we still have the aforementioned distance problem to deal with, as well as the time factor involved in retracing the steps of who said what, where and when so many eons ago.

What about the problem of errors, mistakes or liberties taken with the known (or generally acknowledged) facts? Do the facts found in the Bible, such as they are, coincide with or run counter to the veracity of events as described elsewhere in the historical record? This is the crux of the problem. For if the historical record — those so-called “known facts” — are found not to coincide with the Biblical explanation of events, do we then discard the historical record, or do we drop the Biblical sources as unreliable?

Here’s another interesting case in point, drawn from the Gospels: we know from history that the Roman governor of Judea — the province where the historical Jesus both lived and died — ruled with an iron hand. The reason for this attitude was both practical and plain: to put down rebellion at the first sign of trouble.

How, then, do we explain Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to swiftly carry out that part of Roman justice demanded of his office, i.e., to execute a potential “rabble rouser” such as Jesus, swiftly and at the first sign of trouble? Wouldn’t we expect Pilate to act as any Roman governor would and take matters into his hands, or would his behavior depart from the norm simply because of his proximity to Christ?

Depending on who you ask, the Biblical narrative would “seem” to indicate the latter, which somewhat contradicts what scholars, historians and other learned individuals know of the historical Roman governor’s role in Christ’s Crucifixion, or for that matter any crucifixion.

This takes us to the next topic up for discussion: is history truth? Or, to put it another way, is there such thing as historical truth? If there is, how does it compare to, say, Biblical truth? You will notice the paraphrasing of Pilate’s own rhetorical query, “What is truth?”

We have seen that history can be subjective — that is, one’s view of a subject is always taken from the person viewing it (thus referring back to the old issue of history as being written by the victors), what tends to be called the “subjective vantage point.” Can this view encompass other vantage points — in other words, a more objective one, whereby a topic, matter or person is interpreted in a less opinionated fashion, thereby refraining from pontificating on its substance? Of course it can! But it’s not that easy, is it?

Again, we come to what I describe as the “invariable variable,” also known as the distance problem rearing its ugly head. By that I mean to ask: are we so far removed from the Biblical (or prehistorical) context of past events as to be irretrievably separated from them?

The answer to that is: it all depends. Different events in the past can have any number of differing, even multiple, interpretations or meanings, whether or not they are viewed from a subjective or objective angle.

The Kennedy Case

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Let’s take one such event from the recent past and examine it from both the subjective and objective vantage points, certainly one of the most photographed and investigated murder cases of our time, i.e., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, as interpreted by filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone in the movie JFK (1991).

Stone’s film charts a familiar course set forth 15 years earlier by director Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation of the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon (a subject Mr. Stone tackled separately).

In Pakula’s picture, there are two crusading reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who write for the Washington Post, headed by Chief Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). In Stone’s reworking of Kennedy’s untimely death and the ensuing investigation of same, Kevin Costner plays crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, as portrayed by Costner, is as far from the real-life fanatical, self-righteous, wrong-headed prosecutor as New York is from Los Angeles.

JFK follows Garrison as he leads his team of investigators on a wild goose chase over unsupported terrain: there are charges and counter-charges, dirty dealings and underhanded activities, clandestine meetings, supposed conspiracy theories, angry Cubans, ex-military types, contrived or fabricated evidence, numerous blind alleys, red herrings, dead or disappearing witnesses, and whatever else the D. A.’s illogical mind conjures up.

Now let us juxtapose Stone’s operatically conceived opus with an actual piece of research material: the 1989 documentary Who Shot President Kennedy? Written, directed and produced by Robert Richter, and narrated by anchorman and reporter Walter Cronkite, the level of investigative journalism demonstrated in this 57-minute feature, which takes into account every known facet of the assassination — from footage of the Dallas physicians who tried to save Kennedy’s life and computerized 3-D images of Dealey Plaza, to a frame by frame analysis of the Abraham Zapruder footage and leading critics of the Warren Commission’s findings — puts to shame many of JFK’s most far-fetched conclusions.

To begin with, what did the city of New Orleans have to do with Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas? Quite a lot, as the film would have us believe. In the first place, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, in an uncanny personification), the so-called Lone Gunman (a designation made years after the fact), was born there; and in the second, Garrison’s bogus criminal case was aimed squarely at a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (a fey Tommy Lee Jones) and his sometime partner, cross-dresser David Ferrie (a peculiarly manic and foul-mouthed Joe Pesci), scapegoats both.

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

The result is Rashomon run amok. In the end, one has no idea who to believe or how to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys (there are no black hats here, only varying shades of gray). In reality, Garrison tried his best to sway an incredulous court to convict Clay Shaw on flimsy if unsubstantiated evidence. If the film had stayed in the Big Easy, it might ultimately have made more sense. As it turned out, though, Stone had his fictional Garrison go in every direction at once, all the while trying his best to keep up appearances as the dedicated D.A. and devoted family man and husband.

What were those directions? Among the various corners turned, the director had his cast and crew look at the case against Oswald in much the same manner as the above-mentioned documentary, which included the single bullet theory (the timing problem, the angle of trajectory, the type of weapon fired, and other incongruous issues), the possibility of a Grassy Knoll assassin (or lack thereof), the photographic and acoustic evidence from Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s alleged ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, likewise his FBI and CIA connections, the president’s body, the supposed botched autopsy (or “altered wounds” theory), and so on. Whew, that’s a whole lot of fat to chew on for three hours of movie time!

As we know from past experience, the longer a specific case is investigated, the more it will reveal about itself. In this instance, however, the more the JFK assassination is probed and poked at, the more speculative it gets and the more speculation surrounds it, which only leads to more unanswered questions and crackpot “theories” — some of which belong to the realm of fantasy and the bizarre, not to mention the harebrained.

Still, does the fact that the most investigated and photographed case in modern history make the resultant inquiry any less meaningful, or the findings any easier to accept? We know there were many problems with the Warren Commission’s Report, but after watching JFK one is forced to admit that Oliver Stone’s version of events is not without glitches of its own. Bravura film-making, which the director’s motion picture undeniably encompasses, does not a true picture make!

Additional problems are presented or addressed, along with newer and ever bolder hypotheses about who killed Kennedy, to include blatant, out-and-out inventions. One gets the feeling that Stone is constantly lurching for a definitive answer, which remains stubbornly out of his reach. The question at this point becomes: has Stone taken undue liberties with the facts? Can he beg our indulgence over their use by employing the oft-quoted “poetic license” excuse?

Oliver Stone conferring with Costner

Oliver Stone conferring with Kevin Costner

We may even put forth a few theories of our own, such as: doesn’t a film’s director have a responsibility — moral, ethical or otherwise — to present the facts as they are? The “truth,” if it indeed exists, is out there (at least, according to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder), so why can’t he see it?

Do directors, by their very nature, have their own agendas to pursue, arrived at before filming even begins? By their action, does it soil whatever believability has been attained, only to be buried under layer upon layer of unproven allegations? 

Are they not attempting to fit pieces of gathered evidence, conveniently labeled “the facts,” into a previously developed, predetermined script? And isn’t this another form of manipulation of past events, a parable to end all parables, the cinematic Gospel according to Stone?

All of the above certainly merits our attention, which may warrant further inquiry at a later time.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes