Do you remember that guy from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I think he was in Nightmare on Elm Street, too. Great actor. It’s like he disappeared into the ether or something. Johnny Depp, that’s his name. He was the guy known for taking on edgy, non-commercial roles in dark art house films. Where has he gone? He’s virtually vanished. In fact, if I were to round up Jack Sparrow, Tonto and Mortdecai (between them there should be more than enough fictional tracking, detecting and hunting prowess), I still don’t think we could find that incredibly talented performer from the ’90s.
Admittedly, Depp was not known for packing multiplexes back in the day. He almost seemed to be mining the depths in search of the most financially-unreliable projects. But from that era we got Dead Man, Sleepy Hollow, Benny and Joon. We got From Hell, Edward Scissorhands, and The Ninth Gate. His characters were disturbed, flawed, lost personas often on the fringe of society, experiencing and exploring unorthodox narratives. True, few were “successes” in the Hollywood sense of the word, but he continued to get work and make films that offered something new and different. Something that had the courage to peek under the surface. No one walked out of a Johnny Depp film scoffing, “He clearly took the money and ran.” He wasn’t an A-list player, but he exuded integrity. We can all admire a failed work of art if the artist clearly had their heart in it.
Then came Captain Jack Sparrow, the most palatable version of Johnny Depp’s charm. A bumbling, womanizing pirate constantly battling supernatural forces of evil. Suddenly, it was as if a secret had gotten out. Suddenly, the sky was the limit. But as is often the case when you hand an authentically-talented person the world, the magic evaporates from the room. “We’re not hungry anymore,” as Scarface would say. It’s not easy to specify, but something clearly changed for Depp.
Last month, Depp’s newest caper Mortdecai (featuring a bumbling, womanizing protagonist…) was a huge flop. The third in a row for Depp (not including his minor stint in Disney’s Into the Woods. Depp was never considered a huge box-office draw on his own. But he attracted the pedigree that offered big, flashy enterprises in which he could dwell. Will those creative teams continue to come calling after yet another box-office dumpster fire?
Because, although Depp wasn’t making splashy headlines for record-breaking weekends in the ’90s, he was hungry. His heart was in it. It was obvious. I’m not sure where that guy went, but whenever he grows tired of that easy Caribbean living, I know some folks who’d love to see what he can do.