Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Depp impact

A former teen idol has become Hollywood's most versatile and moving actor.

By Charles Taylor
May 26, 1998 9:07PM (UTC)
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I know that Johnny Depp must open his mouth when he speaks, but
after I've seen one of his performances, I can barely remember his lips
moving: Everything he communicates seems to come from his eyes. And it's
not that his line readings are inexpressive. In the narration that begins
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape," Depp's Gilbert sums up his loving,
frustrating relationship with his retarded younger brother (Leonardo
DiCaprio) by saying, "Some days you want him to live, some days you don't."
That reluctant declaration, a desire to be honest without being hurtful,
defines his character. Often, though, Depp uses his husky, shallow voice
for line readings so hesitant -- hushed, almost -- that they seem a mere
echo of what you can read already in his huge, dark eyes. (Depp narrows
them to beady black marbles behind Hunter S. Thompson's trademark yellow
aviator glasses in his woolly-bully performance in Terry Gilliam's new film
of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.")

Those eyes, sleepy and wide-awake at the same time, are just part of what
seems soft, watchful, even a bit passive about Johnny Depp. He takes in
everything around him with a deadpan acceptance that's also, in some
essential way, unprotected. Depp's vulnerability is what seemed, for a
while, to doom him to a career playing sweet-tempered freaks and oddballs.
He wears the popeyed surprise of a distressed kewpie doll throughout Tim
Burton's "Edward Scissorhands." In Depp's scenes with Vincent Price (who
plays the scientist who creates Edward), the two achieve a true, fairy-tale
magic; they're Pinocchio and Gepetto as Goth kids might have reimagined
them. But there's not much any actor could do with the rest of the movie --
a pasteled hate letter to suburbia -- and since Edward is its sacrificial
lamb, Depp gets stuck in the masochism of the conception.


As a young silent-film enthusiast in "Benny & Joon," Depp pulls off some
very skillful re-creations of Chaplin and Keaton routines (he's particularly
good in one sequence where his hat appears to have taken on a life of its
own), but it's another sentimental "special person" role. Depp's best
moments are when the camera just looks at him: in his first shot as he
peeps over the top of Robert Benayoun's book "The Look of Buster Keaton,"
or, in a moment to treasure near the end, as he swings past a second-story
window and, with gallant nonchalance, doffs his top hat to the lady inside.

When directors make the mistake of using Depp as merely an observer --
which is what Jim Jarmusch did in his absurdist Western whatsit "Dead Man"
-- they short-circuit his natural responsiveness. Depp's three best film
roles to date are duets, each with a partner who comes under his spell. The
overarching joke of "Don Juan DeMarco" is that everybody who meets
Depp winds up enchanted in one way or another. On the surface, this might
look like just another damaged-dreamer part -- Depp plays an addled kid
from Queens who reinvents himself as the world's greatest lover. But
everything about Depp in this role is sensual, alluring and lush, from the
Castillian accent he adopts to his swashbuckler duds: tall, cuffed boots;
shirts of rich, nubby cotton with billowing sleeves; a vest of deep red
velvet. Depp gets so far inside this kid's fantasy life that he makes this
get-up look great, not ridiculous. It's no wonder that doormen bow and
women fall into bed with him. (In one scene, Depp kisses a woman's hand as
if he's eating soft fruit and tells her, "I give women pleasure -- if they
desire it." The women in the packed theater around me sighed audibly.) Even
the psychiatrist (Marlon Brando) charged with treating Depp's "Don Juan"
falls for the tale he weaves of a life filled with illicit affairs, duels
to avenge honor, evil slave traders, hiding out in a harem. It's not the
truth, but it beats the hell out of growing up in Queens.

Brando and Depp treat their roles as a game, a masquerade. The pleasure
that the psychiatrist takes in this delusional Don Juan is inseparable from
the pleasure Brando takes in Depp. He's glad to find an actor with enough
sense of fun to play with him. Depp turns himself into a dream object for
ripe erotic farce. He puts just the right parodistic spin on Don Juan's
passion (demanding of one hapless shrink, "Have you ever loved a woman
until milk leaked from her as though she had just given birth to love
itself and now must feed it or burst?") and his passivity (when he finds
himself trapped in a harem, he regards the naked lovelies disporting in
front of him with a shrug that asks, "What's a poor virile young Don to
do?"). It's a luscious performance, as sexy as it is funny.


There's a different kind of masquerade going on in "Donnie Brasco." The
director, Mike Newell, begins and ends the film on a close-up of Depp's
eyes. But instead of drawing us into the character, these shots define
Depp's distance from us and, finally, his distance from himself. Casting
Depp as an FBI undercover agent who bonds with the aging, small-time hood
(Al Pacino) he must betray, Newell exploits the tension that comes from
casting an actor who's naturally expressive in the role of a man who must
control his emotions or die. Our own memories of Depp's dreamy romantic
presence carry over into the movie -- and give a special horror to the
scenes in which he has to collaborate in mob brutality to protect his
cover. Seeing someone so young and open retreat to a mental and emotional
place he may never be able to extricate himself from is chilling. When his
wife (Anne Heche, witnessing what her husband's job is doing to him with a
prickly, muted outrage) accuses him of becoming like the hoods he's hanging
with, he answers, "I'm not becoming like them, Maggie. I am them" with a
helpless self-disgust. After a while, it's a toss-up whether it's worse to
see Depp betray the emotion brimming from Pacino's huge, dark, baggy
eyes, or the youth in his own.

In "Donnie Brasco" Depp is, for the first time, fully believable as an
adult on screen. But it may be "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," an odd-duck
charmer of a movie, that captures the tenderness that makes Depp so likable
in the first place. His Gilbert is a young man stuck in a small town acting
as the de facto head of a family that includes his retarded brother, Arnie
(DiCaprio), and his enormously overweight mother (Darlene Cates, a
nonprofessional actress who gives a very touching performance). His
responsibility to them keeps him from leaving, and the role could have been
a real bummer, a slacker George Bailey. But Depp doesn't rely completely on
Gilbert's sense of duty to explain what keeps him in one place. He brings
to Gilbert the concentrated sadness of someone who knows his life is being
wasted and can't quite find the will or inspiration to do something about
it. When Gilbert tells Arnie that he'll take care of it if anyone hurts
him, he says, "Why will I take care of it? Because I'm Gilbert." That's his
role, and the resignation in his voice is too deep to allow for resentment.

Depp wears long reddish brown hair in the role, parted in the middle and
swept back behind both ears. That hair defines Gilbert; he goes with the
flow, offering no resistance. In one scene, Arnie, in response to some
remark, dances around, chanting, "We're not going anywhere!" Gilbert,
feeling the irony of that line, walks away in a slump, his hands thrust in
his pockets. From the back, he looks like an old Indian man shuffling
along. We can't see Depp's face, but his slouch tells you exactly how he's


I can think of just a few actors -- Julie Christie in "Shampoo" and Myrna
Loy in "The Best Years of Our Lives," to name two -- who've been able to
communicate, silently, with their back to the camera. But then this is a
performance about the weight of empathy. Depp's scenes with DiCaprio (who's
astonishing) are miracles of connection; they hum with love traveling
through faulty wiring and still making itself felt. And when Gilbert runs
out of patience and hits Arnie, you're torn up for both of them. Earlier in
the movie, Gilbert describes his wish: "I want to be a good person." When
he thinks he's failed, Depp's expression tells us that Gilbert wishes he
could run away from himself. The movie rewards Gilbert's goodness. At the
end, his face shows that he understands the difference between staying
somewhere because you have no choice and staying knowing that you have the
freedom to go.

Johnny Depp is a constant reminder of the joys and perils of being a
critic. When Depp began trying to build a career in movies, fresh from "21
Jump Street," most critics treated him as a joke because he was a teen idol
and a TV actor. "Maybe I'm a joke now," he recently told Rolling Stone,
"but at least I'm my own joke." The body of work Depp has been building,
each part chosen with an eye toward stretching himself, reminds us that one
of the chief pleasures the movies offer is the surprise discovering a
performer's possibilities -- and the impossibility of predicting what
they'll be.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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Johnny Depp Marlon Brando