Have I transformed completely into Dave Navarro yet?
We’ve had our good times, I’m the first to admit. His is far and away the most enjoyable death scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I can never take that away from him, nor would I want to. Cry-Baby?–Depp synched into the movie’s greaseball scurrility as perhaps only an Owensboro, Kentucky boy with a name that’s close to the punchline of a dirty joke could’ve (and if nothing else, he deserves fame for being a famous native son who made his name outside of the NASCAR circuit). But something went wrong, terribly wrong, and with a new Pirates of the Caribbean presently pillaging the box office, and the imminent threat of yet another looming on the horizon, I feel this much is worth saying: Johnny Depp’s filmography is a quagmire of mediocrity, and it’s only getting worse.
He’s had the task of shouldering a mantle that you wouldn’t wish on anyone: River Phoenix croaking in front of The Viper Room as good as defaulted the media’s “Official Actor of Generation X” title to Depp, and he quietly sloughed away from that honor with enough panache to win him the hearts of anyone suckled on 21 Jump Street (the ladies, most especially). But he’d already set the trajectory towards a career reliant on facile gimmickry with Edward Scissorhands, an audience-flattering fairytale of suburban self-melodramatising that remains the universal favorite of anyone who’s emotionally arrested at age fourteen.
It took him some time to feel out his limitations (though the rocky-box-office of the mid-90s are almost certainly the most interesting part of his ouevre), but he’s now firmly ensconced as Hollywood’s go-to “eccentric,” an exceedingly callow actor whose most consistent secret-of-success has been substituting tailor-made affectations for invested performance–and so we have the legacy of his whimsical retard in Benny and Joon, his hambone Hunter S. Thompson impression in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his harlequin-paperback brogue in Chocolat (the worst movie ever made?), and an assortment of other skittery, eye-popping stunt-acting turns–I’ll have to concede him Ed Wood, though that movie owes infinitely more to the soul of Landau and the ever-undervalued Patricia Arquette. Depp lacks depth–he fills out a costume fine, but in the face of a lacerating, masterful makeup performance like Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he’s revealed as basically a Christopher Lloyd with better cheekbones.
“I bet you were expecting a Hollywood putz, some fucking commodity without a brain in his head,” said Depp, in typical methinks-thou-doth-protest-too-much fashion, at the head of a 2000 interview with VIBE magazine, promoting the Hughes Brothers’ From Hell. You can smell the desperate self-justification that’s in overdrive throughout–the actor’s sporting a Rage Against the Machine tee-shirt in the accompanying photo spread, feigns vitriol towards MTV and fast-food, and generally acts like a dumb, mouthy kid parroting shopworn antiestablishment platitudes at the mall food court. How does Depp explain away his stock in the overstuffed, utterly banal trilogy-of-the-moment? Who knows and really, who cares? If Depp had the courage of his convictions, he would be Crispin Glover, period.
I’m sure he’s a nice-enough guy–Autograph Collector recently ranked him as the top celebrity signer!–but as Depp continues to shill his trademark, tidily-packaged “weirdness” to the middlebrow, emergent bobo audience he’s nursed for so long, I feel something like the sentiment expressed by those ‘Not My President’ bumper stickers that cropped up after the 2000 election. Depp is Not My Movie star. And in his seemingly boundless appeal for my generation, he’s become more than an actor to me–he’s an icon, a false idol, representative of Tim Burton’s confusion of decor with cinema, phony lip-service to counterculture ideals, deluded pretense…
But, as it is my general policy never to try to knock something down without raising something in its place, I make this modest proposal to nominate the true actor of my generation: a man who has shown no hypocritical squirming when he’s working (exceedingly) in the constraints of industrial genre filmmaking (Assault on Precinct 13 is better than you think!); who has provided one of the most nuanced, sustained portraits of contemporary masculinity in his collaborations with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy; our Hamlet, for God’s sake; the man who has even written some books that, for all I know, could be perfectly readable…
VIVA LE HAWKE! DOWN WITH DEPP!