Remember when Johnny Depp was cool? Take your time.
Perhaps you haven't seen true Depp coolness since 2001's George Jung biopic "Blow," which saw the actor strut through an airport to the tune of Ram Jam's "Black Betty." Or maybe your last dose of genuine Depp mystique came from 2003's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," in which the third-billed (!) player stole the spotlight as a blinded CIA agent, who used a young boy as his seeing-eye shooter ("Send him to fucking Broadway," went the still-rebellious star's most memorable line).
But odds are the last time Depp charmed you with his powerhouse, offbeat allure was at the close of that very same year, when his rollicking, frolicking turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates" film had him swimming in the uncharted waters of awards-season politics. At the time, Depp seemed to be at the core of a holy trinity, which united populist filmgoers, Depp's semi-cult fanbase, and the uppity members of the Academy, who, in giving Depp his first-ever Oscar nod for his leading "Pirates" role, not only showed an unlikely embrace of a major Hollywood blockbuster, but extended an olive branch to a man who'd long been a free-thinking industry outlier.
Ten years later, that triumphant, please-all convergence feels less like a career peak for Depp than the inaugural nail in his credibility's coffin. It has been followed, in large part, by a monotonous string of redundant roles in marketable tent poles, nearly all of them a franchise kick-off, blockbuster sequel, or reboot of an established brand. The parade of mega-budget fare, which has serially featured Depp's go-to directors like Tim Burton, Rob Marshall, and Gore Verbinski, has shown the actor descend from androgynously handsome chameleon to punchline-happy self-parody.
Directed by Verbinski in his fifth Depp collaboration, this week's "The Lone Ranger" may just mark this decade-long cycle's nadir, with Depp—as a Native American in whiteface, to boot -- doing such a mechanical riff on his Jack Sparrow schtick that saying he chews the scenery would be hyperbolic praise. Regrettably, watching the movie comes with quite a sting, as not long ago, Depp seemed like everyone's favorite near-the-fringes actor to love.
The aughts may mark the decade in which Depp rose to global hitmaker, but the nineties hold his real cache of gems. That's where you'll find his more tactile, evocative and homespun Tim Burton unions, like "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," and even "Sleepy Hollow," which, for all its failings, remains a gorgeous production with an untethered Depp as finicky Ichabod Crane. It's where you'll find John Waters's "Cry-Baby," John Badham's underrated "Nick of Time," the beloved and unassuming "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a mad curio of a drug flick if ever there was one, with Depp taking on his first Hunter S. Thompson text.
Fittingly, the nineties also house Jim Jarmusch's black-and-white, quasi-elliptical western "Dead Man," which is, in virtually every way, the antithesis to "The Lone Ranger," made for roughly four percent of the new film's $250-million budget, and, as was noted yesterday by Jake Cole at Film.com, depicts Native Americans in an exceedingly better light, with less catering to white guilt and more shrewd, knowing winks.
Looking back, although Jack Sparrow is the one big character of Depp's new era that he originated, and didn't revive from known, pre-packaged material (there was no Jack Sparrow in the theme-park ride on which "Pirates" is based), even his fate-changing 2003 ascent seems to come down to one thing: Money. However indelible Depp's initial "Pirates" performance was, and however glowing the reviews, you can be sure that a major factor swaying Academy voters was the $654 million global haul of "The Curse of the Black Pearl."
Prestige came in the afterglow of Depp's Oscar citation, including another Best Actor nod the following year for the snoozy "Finding Neverland," but what also came was the start of a gross and boundless influx of dough, predominantly thanks to the wholesome folks at Disney. According to a Vanity Fair article published in the fall of 2011, at which point Depp was the highest-paid actor on earth, an epic gross-profit-sharing deal Depp brokered with the studio netted him roughly $300 million of the "Pirates" franchise's $3.7 billion global take, a total just shy of the actor's current net worth of $350 million. The coddling puff piece also quotes Depp as saying that the "stupid money" is "ultimately for the kids" he had with ex Vanessa Paradis, a sentiment that seems as vulgar as it does disingenuous, since the next 10 Depp generations could sit on their thumbs if the "Pirates" series died tomorrow.
Next: Could Depp reclaim his power?