It’s unappetizing, the prospect of scoring easy points off Johnny Depp over his string of commercial and critical failures, the most recent of which is the phantasmagorical nothingburger Alice Through the Looking Glass. Then there are the sordid (though vigorously contested) accusations of alcoholism and violence that have attended his divorce from Amber Heard. And let’s not forget his pointedly slummy bearing in public. So I want to begin by saying that Depp remains, in spite of everything, an actor of enormous charm, and one who at his best has a contagious delight in playing dress-up and wearing outlandish makeup and adopting funny (both strange and ha-ha) voices, who prides himself on embracing a mode of performance that most leading men would find too “out there” — though he has likely inspired a generation of them to indulge their own goofy sides onscreen.
But Depp’s compass, always wobbly, seems to have gone haywire, and I sense that it’s not a temporary phase but the cumulative effect of choices — creative and personal — that he made more than two decades ago. Hard as he works, he’s plainly in love with the kind of dissolution that passes itself off as madcap, countercultural defiance, even when it’s just … dissolute. And his role models tend to be legendary examples of prodigal waste: brilliant, self-destructive child-men who lead unwary followers over cliffs. Is Depp on the precipice?
His transformation began with his apparent liberator, the ostentatious weirdo Tim Burton. Depp — after an unstable childhood in Kentucky and Florida — became an instant heartthrob in the fledgling Fox network’s then-hip, now laughably tacky undercover-cop series 21 Jump Street, and he came to hate the job and the bland fate it portended. In 1990, he persuaded Burton to cast him in the title role of Edward Scissorhands, a whey-faced ghoul-boy whose inventor (Burton idol Vincent Price) gave him scissors in place of hands, so that he hurt people he longed to embrace. It was a tender, marvelously designed film, and also a monument to — and justification for — Burton’s morbid self-pity. In Depp, he found a dream alter ego: not some nerdy misfit who had freakishness thrust upon him but a beautiful young man who could have passed for “straight” and chose to cultivate his inner freak. In Burton, Depp found someone who could help him to express poetically his sense of himself as a wounded outsider.
After that, Depp would be aggressively offbeat. In the next five years, he acted in Arizona Dream, Benny & Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, and Dead Man. Apart from Don Juan DeMarco (more about which below), those films ranged from noble tries to jolly entertainments to, in the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Western Dead Man, a near masterpiece. Although none were hits, Depp was right to be proud. He told interviewers that he just wasn’t a “blockbuster boy.” He thought of himself, he said, as a musician — and he remains one, performing in the Alice Cooper–led “supergroup” Hollywood Vampires. The most worrying thing was Depp’s attempt to emulate (especially in Benny & Joon) the poetic deadpan of Buster Keaton. You might ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Well, the true genius of Buster Keaton was that his great, heavy-lidded “stone face” served as a counterpoint to an elastic body that could be buffeted by the gale winds of fate and miraculously right itself. Depp’s Keatonesque persona was often endearing but just as often dear.
And then came Don Juan DeMarco with Marlon Brando.
It’s worth lingering on Brando, arguably the greatest of all film actors. No one could be so huge yet so subtle. No one could think so wittily in character. In an essay on Last Tango in Paris, Norman Mailer wrote that every line Brando spoke sounded like an imperfect compromise among five different, equally inadequate things he might have said. So Brando was capricious and deep. He was also a damaged child, abandoned by his mother (the town drunk) and physically abused by his father. He came away with a self-loathing that he treated with sex (lots of it) and then food (lots and lots of it). In a career of ups and downs, he scaled the heights in 1972 in Last Tango in Paris. But in his autobiography, he wrote that Last Tango “required a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore.” He stuck with that decision. Never much for rehearsal or memorization, he also developed a system whereby he wore a tiny earpiece, through which an assistant fed him lines. He argued that this made his acting more spontaneous.
Depp was smitten — and it can’t have hurt that his title character was one of those counterculture emblems, an apparent madman whose insistence that he’s Don Juan ends up helping his benumbed therapist (Brando) to rediscover romance and fantasy. Depp could perform for Brando and have his own madness sanctified. (He even dared to cast Brando in his directorial debut, The Brave, which he pulled from domestic circulation after a cataclysmic Cannes Film Festival premiere.)
But Depp’s infatuation wasn’t with the Brando who trained under Stella Adler and learned to release his volcanic emotions onstage and in movies. It was with the crazy, lazy Brando, who skipped (often entertainingly, but still …) along the surface of his roles. Depp’s next guru was even farther gone: Hunter S. Thompson at his most alcoholic and paranoid, his brain addled by years of amphetamines. So Depp was inspired by men who indulged their appetites (or, as therapists say these days, “self-medicated”) to the point where they became cartoons of themselves. It’s no wonder that acting became like free jazz, played better when drunk — in spirit if not literally.
Of course, Depp gave more disciplined performances, like his fine, believable work in Donnie Brasco as a cop who goes undercover and becomes a surrogate son to a mob middleman played by Al Pacino. It helped that he couldn’t compete with Pacino in the scenery-chewing department — no one can. He also had a chance, as a man whose loyalty is divided, to play subtext, which isn’t his forte. In general, Depp plays one dimension at a time, hiding behind harlequin masks instead of opening himself up. Emotionally, he doesn’t release.
Here’s an odd thing. In interviews, Depp has said that there was physical abuse in his home when he was growing up, and he has admitted to having an explosive temper — as evidenced by his trashing hotel rooms while dating Kate Moss and Winona Ryder. But it’s hard to visualize those episodes. Russell Crowe hurling a phone at some luckless employee: Sure, you can see that, because you sense Crowe’s volatility in his acting, even when he’s playing gentle men. If you heard that, say, Robert Duvall had a short fuse, you’d have no problem imagining it. With most good actors, the emotions are close to the surface. With Depp, not so much. To get a sense of Depp the holy terror, you have to watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as a hotel-trashing movie star in Woody Allen’s Celebrity — very likely modeled on DiCaprio’s co-star in Gilbert Grape. (Depp has admitted that he was heavily “self-medicating” — his words — during that shoot.)
No, there would be little Method self-exploration in Depp’s work, only whimsical caricature, from his loving Thompson imitation in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to his macabre Willy Wonka in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — a man deformed by a cold father and given to torturing little kids. His Sweeney Todd was underpowered musically but otherwise demonically committed. And, of course, one role did finally make him a “blockbuster boy” after all: Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, in which his marvelously tipsy, swishy shtick recalls both Brando’s foppish Fletcher Christian and another of Depp’s role models, Keith Richards. (Although Richards has never lost his musical chops, the history of rock and roll is littered with the corpses of musicians who emulated him without having his superhuman constitution.)
Depp’s fortunes have shifted in the past few years. Although the latest, dire Pirates film made a billion dollars worldwide, his Jack Sparrow feels played out. He was a clownish Barnabas Collins in Burton’s camp travesty Dark Shadows. His Tonto in The Lone Ranger was meant to be subversive, to send up the kind of Western in which White Father Knows Best, but the point got blunted in all the mayhem. His Terry-Thomas impersonation as the title character in Mortdecai was fun for five minutes and then grating — he couldn’t change gears. He looked apathetic, checked out in the increasingly silly cautionary sci-fi flop Transcendence. He began well in the underrated (but still not very good) thriller The Tourist, but apart from his voice — a resonant purr, as distinctive in its way as Orson Welles’s more basso stylings — he was all surface. On a more serious note, he worked hard to humanize the murderous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, and his watchful, paranoid vibe was impressive. But it still felt like an impersonation. He was a sober Hunter Thompson.
In an excellent though dispiriting 2013 Rolling Stone profile by Brian Hiatt, Depp was unusually introspective. Near the end, he summons the spirit of his Obi-Wan: “And then there’s the voice Depp hears in his head sometimes — all the time, really. It’s Marlon Brando’s growl, and this is what it says: ‘Fuck it. Fuck it. You don’t need this shit. Fuck it.’ Depp laughs hard relating this, as if Brando is yelling it in his ear. ‘Marlon got to a point in his life where he just said, “I don’t care,” ’ says Depp, smiling like a fugitive with road’s end in sight at last. ‘And that must be some species of nirvana. It has to be. It’s freedom.’ ”
But when you hear Brando’s audio diaries in last year’s superb documentary Listen to Me Marlon, you understand that “I don’t care” wasn’t freedom for Brando, just as shooting guns, drinking himself into oblivion, and blowing his head off wasn’t freedom for Thompson. Depp clearly still cares, but whatever he’s going through now, he looks like a man in hell. His and Heard’s public-service message to keep Heard out of an Australian prison for sneaking dogs into the country was clearly meant to be ironic — an imitation of a bad actor reading bad lines badly, as if with a gun to his head — but left a bitter aftertaste. He looked like a man at the end of both his marriage and his tether.
Depp does not seem the type to go Full Brando or Full Thompson — his work ethic is too strong, his interests too varied. Maybe he’ll realize that he’s tired of the imitation game and doing ghoulish kiddie stylings for Tim Burton. Maybe we’ve seen only the surface of his talent and he’ll stop hiding and go inward for inspiration, like the Brando of Last Tango. Maybe there are altogether different kinds of miracles to come.
*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.