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Johnny Depp: American Original

Johnny Depp’s experience with the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie is a good primer in the inevitable conflicts between artist and businessman.

The artist desires originality. What hasn’t been done before? The businessman desires repetition. What has been successful before? Businessmen fret over originality because they can’t predict its outcome — or, more accurately, pretend to predict its outcome, since their predictions are always suspect at best. “Seinfeld,” after all, bombed before focus groups. “Bottle Rocket” received the lowest focus-group numbers in its studio’s history. Focus groups are the enablers of studio executives in this way. What’s this thing? say focus groups. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It must not be any good.

For “Pirates,” Disney executives imagined Capt. Jack Sparrow as a gleaming-teethed swashbuckler, a Burt Lancaster type, something that had worked before. Instead Depp gave them a pirate who was touched, tippled, fey and vain. He wobbled. He wore mascara. He was comic. He was original. He was, according to Depp, a combination of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew.

Disney executives famously objected. I’m sure there were discussions of branding and cross-promotion and synergy. “Pirates” wasn’t just a movie, after all, it was one of the most popular rides at Disney theme parks around the world. It was already a brand. If the film bombed, it might ruin the brand. They might have to close the rides.

They did. Thanks in large part to Depp’s comic performance, the film proved so popular — making over $650 million worldwide — that Disney temporarily closed the rides to include likenesses of Capt. Jack and other characters from the film. The ride inspired the movie which inspired the ride. Synergy.

Result: Depp was honored for his artistry — a rare Oscar nomination for a comic performance — while the businessmen counted the loot. Those same businessmen are now paying through the nose so Depp can repeat the performance they initially feared; so Depp can repeat his originality. Find the irony where you will.

Ain’t pretty no more

Johnny Depp has been an original for much of his career. The purpose of the movie star is to appear cool and good-looking onscreen. Depp, cool and good-looking in real life, goes out of his way to appear geeky and freaky onscreen. He hides his pretty face. He is Jake La Motta to his own Tony Janiro. Ain’t pretty no more.

He became a TV star on “21 Jump Street” but chafed under the teen-idol image, and was mocked and maligned for it. Didn’t he have fame? Good looks? Why is he running from what we all want? Since most of us compromise for a middle-class paycheck, we couldn’t understand someone who wouldn’t compromise for a world-class paycheck and all the perks that went with it (Sherilyn Fenn, Kate Moss, Winona Ryder). Sure, it’s a cartoon version of you, but more people see it. Less you, more them. What’s the problem?

So he fled his teen-idol image... by playing a teen idol in John Waters’ film “Cry-Baby.” Waters also cast Tracy Lords, who was trying to flee her porn queen past, as a bad girl. Waters knows. Make fun of your image, and, as he says in the director’s commentary, “they can never use it against you again.” Depp, in a 1990 interview, said more-or-less the same. “It was a chance to make fun of the image that had been shoved down America’s throats by the company I worked for,” he said. The role also helped introduce him to Tim Burton, with whom he would make five films. And counting.

He went on to play characters who battle with reality. They are often confused men trying to make sense of a harsh reality (“Edward Scissorhands,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” “Dead Man,” “Sleepy Hollow”) or crazed men who suck others into their fantasy (“Ed Wood,” “Don Juan DeMarco,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). In “Benny & Joon,” Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) first sees the silent film-loving Sam (Depp) perched in a tree. The second time she sees him, after winning him (by losing) in a card game, she says, matter-of-factly, “You’re out of your tree.” He pauses, shrugs, and responds matter-of-factly, “It’s not my tree.”

That sums up many of Johnny Depp’s early characters. They’re out of their tree, but it’s not their tree.

Too delicate to live

These characters often seem too delicate to live. They tend to be passive, particularly with women. His Edward is frozen before Winona Ryder’s beauty, his Gilbert a boy-toy to Mary Steenburgen. In the same film it’s Juliette Lewis who finally makes the first move. Even Depp’s Don Juan forces himself on no one. “I give women pleasure, if they desire,” he says. That’s why his Roux, the gypsy in “Chocolat” (2000), comes as something of a shock. He actually flirts with Juliette Binoche’s Vianne. He’s actually bold. As she walks away, he checks her out. “I’ll come around sometime,” he says, grinning, “get that squeak out of your door.” The grin broadens. Women everywhere fanned themselves.

His characters are sometimes so reserved that they risk being non-entities. “Johnny played the part straight and flat,” Roman Polanski says of Depp’s Dean Corso in “The Ninth Gate. “An interesting contrast with all those strange and funny secondary characters.” As a result Depp often found himself upstaged: by Leonardo DiCaprio’s mentally-handicapped kid brother in “Gilbert Grape,” by Al Pacino’s sad mobster in “Donnie Brasco,” by Benicio del Toro’s whacked-out lawyer in “Fear and Loathing.” It was his co-stars who got the Oscar noms: Leo for “Gilbert,” Martin Landau for “Ed Wood,” Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench in “Chocolat.”

Now he’s doing the upstaging; now he’s getting the Oscar noms. Maybe it helps that he’s not the central character. Maybe having the focus elsewhere frees him in some way. “Pirates” is a love story between Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is a revenge story for Antonio Banderas. Depp’s character in both films is the wild card who sets everything in motion. Outrageous, unpredictable, funny: the guy we remember. The guy who makes watching the movie worthwhile. You gotta love an undercover CIA agent who wears a T-shirt that says “CIA” to a bullfight.

Many of his early movies were indies, and none made much money. 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands” topped $50 million, a number a Johnny Depp movie wouldn’t see again until 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow” (which topped $100 million). Most floundered below $25 million. Going mainstream didn’t help. The action film “Nick of Time” (1995) made just $8 million. The sci-fi thriller, “The Astronaut’s Wife” (1999), made just $10 million. Both films had the additional problem of sucking.

Indeed, the pleasant surprise of watching the early Johnny Depp movies again is how many of them hold up. “Cry-Baby” is a rock ’n’ roll gas, “Edward Scissorhands” is a touching metaphor for hurting those we love, “Gilbert Grape” a bittersweet battle between too-little freedom and too-much responsibility. Want a short valentine full of beautiful language? “Don Juan DeMarco.” A paean to bad taste over corporate taste? “Ed Wood.” A gritty drama on loyalty which warns — like Kurt Vonnegut in “Mother Night” — to be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be? “Donnie Brasco.”

More recent films are good but lack something. “Fear and Loathing” is a helluva trip, but it’s someone else’s trip, and people on drugs rarely make interesting protagonists. The ending to “The Ninth Gate” is thin. “Blow,” already derivative of “Goodfellas,” suffers from the second-half passivity of Depp’s initial Boston tough guy. “Once Upon a Time” is too much style and not enough substance. “Secret Window” is too easy to figure out.

Depp is great in all of them.

Out of his tree

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” is Depp’s first sequel, and, like most sequels, it’s bigger, louder and longer than the first. The set pieces are overwhelming. Everything is broader, including the comedy. That might not be a good thing.

Maybe the first film worked so well because Capt. Jack was written as a non-comic character and found himself in non-comic situations. Depp’s tottering performance simply made it all funny. Now that the writers know what they got, they’ve stuck him in comic situations. Being chased by cannibals, for example. Although, I have to admit, Capt. Jack’s head-back, feet-first running style, so reminiscent of a cartoon, is worth the price of admission.

He’s still tippled, of course. He’s still touched. Johnny Depp is still out of his tree, but now it’s his tree.

—This article was originally published on 7/31/06 on MSNBC.com.