There are dozens of biographies on Johnny Depp and a surprising amount of them use the word “rebel” in the title. There’s the Passionate Rebel, the Modern Rebel and even Hollywood’s Best-Loved Rebel.
There can be no argument that Depp is a fearless actor, unafraid to tackle tough, challenging roles, but it’s hard to accept the rebel title these days. For 20 years, he wildly threw darts at the wall, making exciting movies with interesting directors.
With Tim Burton, he created the off-kilter Eds — Wood and Scissorhands. With John Waters, he produced Wade Walker, the greaser love interest in Cry-baby. And, with Lasse Hallström, he came up with Gilbert Grape, caregiver to his brother and morbidly obese mother.
Along the way, he was also Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the world’s most successful drug dealer in Blow, and the depraved poet at the dark heart of The Libertine.
Few actors could have pulled off Ed Wood and no one does debauched like Johnny, but the carefully cultivated hip outsider image was never truly accurate. Shrouded in a cloud of Gauloise smoke, he was one of Hollywood’s too-cool-for-school kids, emitting an outsider’s aura, while astutely playing the Hollywood game.
But any remaining traces of Depp’s bohemian status were wiped away with Captain Jack Sparrow’s colourful scarves in the tetralogy of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They made him a superstar, and wealthy enough to buy Bahamian islands, but also ushered in the damaging wig and makeup era of his career.
The pale makeup of Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland’s crazy oversized hat, and the raven headdress of The Lone Ranger overshadowed Depp’s performances, obscuring his character work with props and flash.
This weekend, he hides behind a moustache in the comedy Mortdecai.
As the title character, he’s pompous, bumbling — imagine Inspector Clouseau with an English accent and an attitude — and on a worldwide hunt for a painting said to contain the code to a lost bank account.
Will people be attracted to Mortdecai? Hard to know. Depp’s showy performances have, by-and-large, garnered big box office but profitability, while important to the suits who green light projects like this, is exactly what’s killing Depp’s credibility as a serious actor.
He’s not in Nicolas Cage territory yet — there’s an actor whose Western Kabuki style of acting redefines idiosyncratic — but with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 coming soon, perhaps it’s time to put Depp’s rebel actor image or reliance on props to bed.