For years we’ve debated over whether or not Nicolas Cage is a good actor, and that conversation -- like his career -- has become something of a novelty, to the point where it was narrative joke on an episode of Community this season. We have this conversation about actors like Cage and Keanu Reeves when we should be having this discussion about Johnny Depp, who isn’t a good actor at all, and whose acting has become so unbearable that it gives you pause and makes you wonder if maybe his entire career has been an elaborate ruse or some sort of clever trick, all smoke and mirrors to obstruct his lack of talent, like a magician distracting us from the banal truth behind the gimmick. The difference between Depp and guys like Cage and Reeves is that the latter have something the former doesn’t: a sense of self-awareness about not only their presence, but their career choices and their evolution on screen. When Keanu Reeves shouts “You owe me a life!” in Man of Tai Chi, he does so knowing exactly how absurd he sounds, and it makes it all the more enjoyable for us to watch. We’re laughing with him, not rolling our eyes at him. We’re just as excited when Nic Cage goes Full Cage as we are when he returns to serious acting in David Gordon Green’s poignant and heartbreaking Joe. But we’re never really excited to see Johnny Depp do anything anymore.
Maybe this is unfair. Maybe there are still some of you who think Johnny Depp is a gifted actor, but I hardly think I’m on an island. The last time I can remember enjoying a Depp performance was in 2001’s Blow, when he played the drug dealing George Jung, but even then when I recall that film, I get more excited thinking about Paul Reubens in it. The real turning point for Depp’s career started way back in 1999, before he threw on the eyeliner and the gold teeth and solidified a blockbuster career off of a cheap Keith Richards impression with his role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It started with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a divisive film among critics and fans alike. For the record, and for what it’s worth, I actually enjoy Sleepy Hollow and Burton’s particular brand of gothic whimsy here, and Depp as the wispy, wimpy Ichabod Crane. It’s Burton’s last live action film that really delivers on Burton’s aesthetic, both tonally and physically, but it’s also one of the last films where we see Depp truly acting both without the aid of a preposterous costume (though he is in period garb) and acting with some restraint. This, followed by Chocolat (shrug), Blow (solid), and From Hell, which, again, I’m okay with, but feels like a retread of gothic territory with which Depp was achingly familiar given his time with Burton -- it just seemed a bit too easy. And From Hell isn’t really an acting showcase as much as it is a film built around a grisly whodunit, so most of the film relies on Heather Graham’s heaving bosom and Depp’s ability to lift his eyebrows so his face acts accordingly with either intrigue, puzzlement, concern, or surprise.
And then came Pirates of the Caribbean and the era of wigs and make-up and mountains of costumes. Like an extravagant elderly woman eluding old age by burying herself in jewels and make-up, it was as if Depp were avoiding something. Is this his mid-life crisis, played out on the big screen? Rather than take on more challenging roles like his peers, Depp became flamboyant as Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd and the Mad Hatter. In between these outlandish roles with false teeth and fake hair and silly voices and hats, he’d play bland, boring roles in films like Finding Neverland and Public Enemies, movies seemingly made to be forgotten -- or maybe they’re just so forgettable because of his lifeless performances in them. It’s almost as if his more lively, cartoonish roles drain all the energy out of him, or else he’s reserving it for those characters; or maybe he only has two modes: grating caricature and insanely dull. It’s turned up to 11 or nothing.
And the more he’s worked with Tim Burton, the more their relationship has gone from symbiotic to toxic -- what once was a happy and mutually beneficial coupling that gave us films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, is now giving us total shit shows like Dark Shadows, which feels like it was made by some lazy Burton contemporary and wannabe, a studio stooge with glossy ideals who doesn’t get it the way the Burton who made stuff like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure got it. That guy is long gone, only briefly glimpsed since in Frankenweenie. He doesn’t even know how to really identify with that side of himself unless he fully immerses himself in a world of artifice.
Similarly, Depp seems to be more at home playing characters who are completely devoid of anything resembling humanity -- they are total caricatures from silly hat to toe. Any time he uses his own voice, the result is a 120 minute yawn of a performance, one that belongs on a white noise machine next to whale calls and sounds of the rainforest. Take his most recent performance in Transcendence, a film which suffers from problems aplenty without his involvement, but his presence only seems to exacerbate things, like constantly rubbing sand on a scraped knee. His voice sounds like your average privileged white man with a proclivity for meditation and incense, the kind of guy who probably got a tribal tattoo at one point and used yoga to pick up chicks, and may have briefly dabbled in wearing a Kabbalah bracelet on his wrist. He’s the kind of guy whose pick-up lines would make you cringe and he definitely still has a Pure Moods Volume 1 CD. That’s Depp’s vocal inflection, and you know what I’m talking about; you avoid that guy at all costs because all he wants to talk about is Tibet and wheatgrass. I don’t know any more polite way to put this, but his voice sounds like it’s laced with roofies.
Transcendence is a nightmare for Johnny Depp haters: Rebecca Hall transforms him into an omniscient Siri who follows her around everywhere she goes, concern-trolling her and everyone around them. And he never. Shuts. Up. He probably watches her while she’s sleeping. It’s horrific. But the most egregious element is his acting, or lack thereof. One could argue that the role calls for a certain robotic coldness, perfect for Depp’s between-caricature style of acting, which you might call “restrained” or “muted” or “laid back” if you were being kind. If you were being more accurate, you’d call it lazy, phoning it in, careless, or cashing a check. The most acting he can muster is a curiously concerned or troubled moment of pause, which calls to mind Joey Tribbiani’s “Smell the Fart Acting” from an episode of Friends, in which Matt LeBlanc’s Joey teaches an acting class of soap opera hopefuls, instructing them that, if they’ve forgotten their lines and need to buy time on screen to remember them, they should make a face as if they’re smelling a fart. It makes for a convincing dramatic pause.
Was Depp always this horrible? He’s been so awful in recent years (say what you will about Jack Sparrow -- it’s just another flamboyant gimmick) that it almost makes it seem as though his good performances are a hazy dream, or a comforting lie. Maybe they’re better in hindsight because he’s become so terrible, or perhaps he was never that great to begin with. I remember being a young movie nerd, in a time before iMDB, when you discovered a new favorite actor and ran to the video store every week, combing through VHS boxes for every movie they’d been in, or flipping through channels hoping to see them in something new. When I was six years old, I saw Edward Scissorhands for the first time and it was the first time a film had ever scared me. My parents never restricted what I watched, and as a little kid, I immensely enjoyed -- and was never terrified of -- slasher flicks. But Edward Scissorhands was the first film to scare me because something in me empathized with Edward, and I was so worried about him at the end of the film. Knowing he likely died up there in his remote gothic home all alone played on my biggest fears as a child: dying, dying alone, and being rejected. I couldn’t sleep that night. The power that film held over me is largely owed, perhaps, to Depp’s performance, which is mostly silent -- so much of it is in those big eyes, so hopeful and cautious and full of wonder at the same time, and yearning to be loved and accepted and to feel the things that these normal people feel; to be human the way he was intended to be. Looking back on it now, I wonder how much of it is really Depp’s performance, and how much of it is owed to make-up and the awkwardness of wearing the costume. I still want to believe Depp was just that heartbreakingly good.
In sixth grade and at the age of 11, aching to emerge from the Grease obsession that plagued most girls my age, I discovered John Waters’ Cry-Baby on TV one day, and my real obsession with Johnny Depp was born. He was just so attractive and charismatic. My mom agreed, and thus saw no problem in my new hobby (or with me watching John Waters movies, apparently). Watching Cry-Baby as an adult is a vastly different experience, especially having seen other Waters films -- Depp certainly seems to fit into the Waters world. The other actors play their parts with the sort of sharp self-awareness about the film that’s never blatant, like a wink at the camera, but always ferociously committed, which is how this particular brand of satire should be played. It’s more difficult to get a read on Depp’s head space, hungry as he was at the time to be a leading man and taken more seriously than the 21 Jump Street heartthrob.
His performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny & Joon really solidified his presence, but he doesn’t give particularly memorable performances in either -- the former belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio, while the latter is just Depp doing silly Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton routines in a sappy story about mental illness.
From there we also got him reuniting with Burton for Ed Wood, which goes toe to toe with Edward Scissorhands as their best collaboration. In it, Depp is so lively and joyous to watch as the cross-dressing B-horror movie director. But even then, we see the seeds of the Depp/Burton problems begin to take root. Depp goes just up to the edge of caricature with his performance as Wood, but he exercises graceful restraint. The Depp of today couldn’t give the same performance because nuance isn’t a word in his vocabulary, but he does contort his face a bit, and he does speak in a heightened voice that isn’t his own, almost as if he’s providing the voice of a character, and not a person. But Burton’s reverence for and understanding of Wood and Depp’s ability to hold back gave us a delightful film nonetheless.
Defenders will always point to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Depp mumbles his way through a perfectly entertaining Hunter S. Thompson impression, and indeed Depp’s fondness for Thompson and interest in the part are readily apparent in how present he seems throughout the film. But again, he’s just playing the character version of a human being, albeit more forgivable here given Thompson’s own writing style and the wild story on which the film is based, the author making himself something of a caricature in his own narrative. Reflecting on this period in Depp’s career, which also gave us the suitable crime drama Donnie Brasco and Roman Polanski’s divisive supernatural flick The Ninth Gate, Depp was kind of all over the place. He also starred in lackluster and forgettable thrillers like Nick of Time and The Astronaut’s Wife (yeah, remember when). And when you think about his performances in those films -- not in Fear and Loathing or Donnie Brasco, films in which he was actually seemingly giving performances or his approximation thereof -- it’s actually quite hard to recall particular moments because it’s not just that the films were forgettable, it’s that his performances were non-starters. It becomes a chicken and egg scenario: which came first -- was Depp so bland that he made the film hard to recall, or was the film so bland that it makes Depp being in it difficult to remember?
Is Johnny Depp a bad actor? It’s inarguable that he’s become a grating presence, whether he’s playing a cartoonish character or something that’s supposed to resemble an average human being. He lacks the quality Tom Cruise possesses, and one that he’s earned over the years -- when we see a new Tom Cruise movie, regardless of what his character’s name is, we’re still going to process that on-screen persona as Tom Cruise. Here’s the Tom Cruise space movie, here’s the Tom Cruise spy movie, here’s the Tom Cruise rock star movie; he’s like an action figure of himself. And, as aforementioned, he lacks that self-aware quality of a guy like Nic Cage or Keanu Reeves, guys who know what they look and sound like on screen, guys who are aware of their choices, good and bad, and how they are perceived by audiences. Those guys embrace their own absurdity and their fans love them for it. In turn, when Nic Cage takes a serious role, we’ll take him seriously because he has the chops to pull it off, and his “Full Cage” moments feel like an actor who’s earned the right to go batshit crazy while making money to pay off the debt on his Scottish castle.
Depp has never given us a truly amazing performance on par with the best of Cruise’s work or even Cage in films like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, or the recent Joe. This is why his bad stuff feels so, so bad -- it just doesn’t feel like he’s earned the right to deliver mediocrity and outright shittiness, and for what? Because our moms used to plaster his poster on their walls? It doesn’t feel like prancing around in a pirate costume doing a knock-off Keith Richards impression for four movies makes him a great actor. Even Keith Richards earned his swagger through making some of the greatest music in history and some pretty hard living. Depp just threw on some eyeliner and a bad accent and called it acting.