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

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Johnny Depp (galleryhip.com)
Johnny Depp (galleryhip.com)

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” 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,” interpreted by the Guardian to mean “drink and drugs,” was 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 is quite a refreshing viewpoint and very much apart from those of other celebrities.

Don’t Be a Wiseguy

Al Pacino & Depp in Donnie Brasco (tailgate365.com)
Al Pacino & Depp in Donnie Brasco (tailgate365.com)

By now, spurning the predictable in Hollywood had become an all-consuming passion for the certifiably dependable mega-star. 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 know-how to a younger generation. 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 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 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.” 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” if not the lithest accomplishment in Johnny’s expanding catalog of 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?)

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, 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 film’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! 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

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