Johnny Depp turns 51 this year. Still good-looking and charismatic, he has remained an actor with a selective career mixing it up in both mainstream and alternative movies often depicting an array of mostly unusual characters. Of course he made drunken pirates seem cool, he successfully scared young children as Willy Wonka and most recently took Tonto, the legend sidekick of The Lone Ranger to obscure depths.
His new film Transcendence literally turns the actor into a computer, a digital Frankenstein if you will – an electrical ball of fury looking at taking over the world. It is as ridiculous as it sounds but Depp makes it watchable. His early career was just as variable. A Nightmare on Elm Street was an unexpected box-office smash in 1984 and to this day remains a cult favourite. Razor gloved Freddy Krueger was introduced in a blaze of controversy but it was a young unknown cast member that made critics take notice. In his debut as a fresh-faced teenager who gets sunken into a bed by Freddy after falling asleep when he wasn’t supposed to, Johnny Depp stood out.
Private Resort was one of many retro sex comedies around at the time inspired by Porkys but again, Depp had talent to burn even in these cheap thrill romps. The big time arrived when being offered a lead role in a newly devised television show about young police detectives infiltrating American high schools in order to bust corrupt students. 21 Jump Street was an instant prime-time hit resonating with all audience age demographics. Youth was the theme which included fashion, music and trends boosted by sex appeal from a cool cast. His role of Tom Hanson was perfect for Depp in a show which lasted 82 episodes.
Success propelled his film career but even at this young age with a ton of offers from Hollywood in abundance, he managed to select odd roles many other teenage heart-throbs avoided. Appearing in the ensemble cast within the Academy Award winning Oliver Stone film Platoon was a safe move for credibility, but it was a role that nobody wanted that defined his way of thinking outside the box. Edward Scissorhands became a pop culture phenomenon. A recluse creation by inventor (legend Vincent Price in his last role), a boy with blades as hands who lived in darkness before entering suburbia was another unexpected hit of 1990. The same year was Cry Baby, a distorted Happy Days-Grease era musical starring former adult entertainment actress Traci Lords and stooge Iggy Pop to name but a few of the weird cast. Although a flop, I loved it, look closely now and you see that creative energy bursting out.
He was also part of his own band at the time called The Kids. To this day, he still performs and writes music for personal interest. Tragedy struck when friend River Phoenix overdosed on the sidewalk in-front of the Viper Room. A popular LA live music venue Depp co-owned at the time, the club was turned into a tourist spot due to the unfortunate circumstance that night, thus he sold out of the business soon after.
Whats Eating Gilbert Grape is still one of my favourite films of that period, a movie Leonardo DiCaprio should have won his first Oscar for, but that’s another story. Throughout the mid to late 90s, Depp kept doing his own thing but directors loved the fact he was up for anything, vanity didn’t matter or get in the way of a unique performance. He directed his first and only film to date, The Brave which featured Marlon Brando. The legendary anti-establishment actor became friends with Depp on the set of Don Juan DeMarco.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an unforgettable film from what was described as an unfilmable book by Hunter S. Thompson. The author and the actor remained friends until Thompson died. Depp saw that his final wishes were granted – that Thompson’s ashes were blown sky high in a fireworks display at the funeral. He teamed up again and again with director Tim Burton on various projects not always replicating the success of Scissorhands.
Ed Wood is a classic, Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had their moments, while Alice in Wonderland left me empty unfortunately and worried for the kids in the audience. A forgotten movie concerning Jack the Ripper, From Hell, is a grand little seen suspense thriller not enough people saw. Depp sleeked around in an opium haze all movie. Not forgetting his big break, Depp returned to part six of the Elm Street series in a hilarious cameo. Freddy’s Dead was in very ordinary 3D and supposed to be the final nightmare, it wasn’t. The recent 21 Jump Street comedy film featured an uncredited cameo from Depp reprising that early television role in the name of laughs. 22 Jump Street, a sequel is out this year.
His early romances were well documented, from Juliette Lewis, model Kate Moss (they made the news when trashing a luxury hotel room) and Winona Ryder. He had a tattoo reconfigured from Winona Forever to Wino Forever, that about summed up his party behaviour at the time.
Now a mature individual humble amongst crowds or during award ceremonies, Depp has only recently separated from his longtime French wife, and mother to his children Vanessa Paradis. She appeared in one of the great French films, The Girl on the Bridge, track it down!
Choosing to live in Europe most of this period, he now is back in the US with current flame and amazing actress herself, Amber Heard.
Based on an amusement park ride, when the original Pirates of the Caribbean hit the screens, faltering Disney stocks went through the roof. However not everyone was convinced during the making of the film. Rushes of Depp as the constantly drunk, swaying, slurring womaniser Captain Jack Sparrow sent shivers down the timbers of Disney suits. Keith Richards was the inspiration and the film ended up a winner for all concerned, gaining Depp an unlikely Oscar nomination. Richards even appeared as Sparrow’s father later in the series.
Big name directors loved his work ethic, Depp played a softly spoken but ruthless gangster John Dillinger in Public Enemies for Michael Mann and controversial auteur Roman Polanski put him in a rare horror film, The Ninth Gate. Played out in real time, Nick of Time was a rare commercial action thriller and a hit. Corpse Bride and Rango may be animated features, but both are not exactly children’s fare. He isn’t always the critical darling – not that he really cares much for critics. The pairing with Angelina Jolie in The Tourist, a highly anticipated romantic adventure was banished by audiences and reviewers alike dismissing it as a waste of 100 minutes you can never get back. I believe the pairing of he and Penelope Cruz in Blow was much more effortlessly sensual but in Dark Shadows, he embarks on the best sexual endeavour ever with Eva Green. However I was not as compassionate with The Lone Ranger, it made my worst three list of last year.
It remains to be seen if Transcendence will be a hit. If nothing else see it for another in a long list of gifted, oddball characters. The story raises questions about the future of technology, more style than substance. Always an interesting, enjoyable, risk-taking actor, Johnny Depp remains an old soul, a Hollywood reluctant star with arguably a remarkable body of brilliant work.
Shane A. Bassett